President Obama has got bubble trouble.
How else to explain that while plutonium wafted into the Japanese sky, as Moammar Gadhafi slaughtered his own people, and with the U.S. government teetering on the brink of a shutdown, Mr. Obama decided to go to Rio - as in de Janeiro, home of the annual bacchanalia know as Carnival?
And how else to explain why, according to one highly placed source, the president has been talking almost daily with former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, seeking advice on what to do with Japan, Libya, the budget?
To hear the president tell it, expanding trade with Brazil is crucial to the U.S. economic recovery. “Our top priority has to be creating and sustaining new jobs and new opportunities for our people,” he wrote Friday in an op-ed piece for USA Today.
Forget the fact that presidents rarely create jobs - except, of course, for a few sympathetic “journalists” in the press office.
What seems to be the case for Mr. Obama, touted as the most cerebral president since the Founders, is that the isolation of the Oval Office has driven his presidency to a new world far removed from reality, let alone the concerns of the American people.
This syndrome isn’t new, nor is it unique to this latest president - No. 44. President No. 37 became so out of touch he thought it was just fine to wiretap political opponents. And President No. 42 - another paragon of intellect - decided there was nothing wrong with having a little non-sex with that intern who gets the pizza.
Mr. Obama’s plight is nowhere near those of his two predecessors, obviously. But he is falling victim to the classic conundrum of the office: How can one live inside so tight a bubble and make decisions that reflect the wants and needs of the people who elected him?
It’s not just the 61 rounds of golf in little more than two years as president - there’s an underlying disconnect that digs down to the roots of the Obama phenomenon, that “audacity of hope.”
“Obama’s whole career has been about audacity - arriving in the Senate and then not taking it very seriously, and deciding to run for president before amassing any real qualifications for the job,” said one longtime White House reporter. “So now, in a way, the insulation of the White House has fed this audacity in an unproductive manner - his strength becoming his weakness - so that he acts in a way where he doesn’t care about perceptions and thinks that because he does it or says it, it must be good.
“We’ve gone from the audacity of hope to the audacity of golf.”
For every president, the bubble becomes particularly airless around Year 2, when top aides on the campaign depart. Senior adviser David Axelrod has left, as has Mr. Emanuel. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who spent more time in high-level meetings with the president than he did returning reporters’ phone calls, has also skedaddled.
An influx of new - outside the bubble - blood has poured in, including new Chief of Staff William Daley of Chicagoland and former “journalist” Jay Carney. But the president has trimmed his confidants to a small cabal - what one longtime reporter called “the yellow couch sitters.” It is this half-dozen or so people who brainstorm with the president in the Oval Office - arrayed around what always seems to be a yellowish couch, regardless of the president - and decide the path to take.
Gone are the seasoned politicos who know Washington. What’s left are those who see shadows in every corner - in this case, first lady Michelle Obama and top adviser Valerie Jarrett. They haven’t a clue about “how it plays in Peoria,” and they couldn’t care less. Word from another top source in the White House is that longtime campaign aide David Plouffe, who recently returned, has been relegated to the back bench, trying desperately to get a word in edgewise.
“The West Wing is really lacking the kind of canny, seasoned Washington pros who can anticipate things, like the Hill reaction to gas prices, and deal with it before the president ends up on the defensive, like we saw last week,” said another veteran West Wing reporter. “They really keep getting caught flatfooted, and it’s so much rookie stuff. You’d expect them to be more nimble and anticipatory three years in.
“It’s such a Catch-22 for them, too - you see Plouffe keeping Obama on message with the jobs stuff, which they really have to do after being so all over the place the first two years with bailouts, health care and stimulus [spending]. But this new discipline also creates the impression that Obama is out of touch — or ineffective — on issues like Libya, Japan and gas prices. Then into the mix you throw a new press secretary, who is very smart but obviously struggling. The effect close up is disjointed, at times chaotic - and also strangely airless.”
The airless bubble. Macbeth had it bad: “Double, double toil and trouble;/Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”
But Mr. Obama may have it worse: He’s got bubble trouble. And that’s doubly troubling. Especially with no air.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.