In his January 14, 2013 press conference, President Obama was asked whether he is too insular and does not socialize enough. The question and his casual response drew laughs, but partisans in both parties say that it is a serious issue. Ostensibly they say that he is unwilling to do the kind of schmoozing necessary to secure a big bi-partisan deal. It’s possible that what they mean is that they’re not comfortable with someone who is comfortable in his own skin. The president can easily talk with those to whom he is close; he has a wide variety of friends ranging from historians to scientists to artists to street basketball players. He’s easy to friend with because he can poke fun at himself and gently rib those with whom he is socializing. He is comfortable on the irony channel, being able to see a set of circumstances through a prism that gives several different perspectives.
As President Obama said in the press conference, many Republicans choose to decline his invitations to White House events. He hypothesizes that the Republicans don’t like “the optics.” In other words they don’t want photos going back home showing them in the company of a Democrat. While he didn’t say it, it’s possible that they don’t like looking stiff and awkward in the presence of the president who is almost always at ease with himself.
Citing the resistance of Republicans to socialize with him, he says:
“I think there are a lot of Republicans at this point that feel that given how much energy has been devoted in some of the media that’s preferred by Republican constituencies to demonize me, that it doesn’t look real good socializing with me.”.
He cited former Florida Gov. Charles Crist, who has now left the Republican Party, as an example. Crist’s fortunes as a Republican never recovered from a hug he gave Obama in early 2009. (Crist also embraced Obama’s economic stimulus bill.)
It’s not just Republicans who find that President Obama’s style of socializing is different from their own.
Neera Tanden, a former aide to both Obama and former President Clinton, complained last year to New York magazine that Obama “doesn’t call anyone” because “he’s not close to almost anyone.”
“It’s stunning that he’s in politics, because he really doesn’t like people,” Tanden said in a remark for which she later apologized.
One of the real perks of the job to President Obama is that he gets to work from home. It’s doubtful that he would have run for president had he not been able to do so. He is well aware of how miserable he made his life for himself as well as his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha when he was serving as an Illinois state senator in Springfield. Often times he would leave their Hyde Park home before sunrise and take the train to the Capitol. Many nights he didn’t return until 2:00 AM. As president, he is able to have dinner with his family far more frequently than he ever was before. He’s able to host parties for the girls. And in what would be treat for virtually anyone, he’s able to pick and choose with whom he wants to be friend.
He is very open to others who either (a) liven up a gathering with wisdom and wit, or (b) is willing to make a social occasion a productive work time. That means working out the details of an agreement; not pontificating just to be heard.
There is so much that we can all learn from President Obama. His social skills may be near the top of the list. He is truly a politician who is a human being first. If we watch him socialize, or watch him choose not to socialize, we can learn a great deal about leadership.
Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.