WAXHAW, N.C. – Every U.S. president needs people around him who are not afraid to tell him that his latest idea is terrible. Otherwise, he just keeps getting into trouble.
"Presidents are cut off from reality when they don’t have some trusted adviser willing to save them from their own worst instincts," said Mark Rozell, public policy professor at George Mason University.
And if a president elevates himself too far above the people who were hired to help him out, then how can those people presume to challenge him?
White House spokesman Matt Lehrich insists that the nation’s current chief executive is not so isolated from divergent ideas: "President Obama believes it’s important to hear a wide variety of viewpoints and surrounds himself with a diverse group of some of the most knowledgeable, experienced, and talented people … who are asked to give their unvarnished opinion."
Yet some Washington-beltway Democrats are concerned that President Obama does not really rely on people who disagree with him.
"If there is no one challenging him on issues," Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, says of Obama, "well, that certainly won’t make him stronger. You have to have a multiplicity of voices in the room."
In Rozell’s opinion, Obama "has this tendency to claim that he is a better speech writer than his own speech writers, or a better policy analyst than any of his own policy advisers.
"With all respect to the man, no one is that good at everything."
Such behavior is only a slight variation on what President Lyndon Johnston did in the 1960s, according to Zelizer: "Oh, he put a variety of voices in the room on Vietnam and public policy, and then would get a lot of pleasure out of arguing them out of their concerns."
Somewhere between this North Carolina town and the border with South Carolina – historians disagree on exactly where it occurred – the man who would redefine the U.S. presidency, and who would inspire a legacy of fiercely independent populist Democrats, was born.
Andrew Jackson, father of that stubborn streak of Democrats who bear his name even to this day, was the seventh American president but was the first one to see the wisdom of including people in his inner circle who challenged him.
Jackson understood the value of being told "no." Not particularly trusting of his official Cabinet, he instead relied on a group of men – dubbed the "Kitchen Cabinet" by his critics – to help formulate his policies.
Obama apparently feels no such distrust toward his cabinet; his problem is that too many sycophants surround him in the White House.
A survey of several insider-Democrats shows that most believe the Obama White House has suffered from a chilling lack of people who can tell the president "no," ever since Rahm Emanuel left as the president’s chief of staff to become Chicago’s mayor.
One big reason why President Obama has dived in opinion polls is that his most trusted advisers, Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, live in "liberal La-La-Land," in the words of one of the Democrats’ top strategists.
A perfect example is the re-election campaign the president is running: It is completely illogical for him to lurch as far left as he has in recent weeks; a smart politician does that only in a primary race during which he fires up his base, then runs to the middle in the general election.
It’s a great strategy for winning the first time you run for office. Not so much, when you run for re-election.
President Obama cannot win re-election in 2012 without the support of independent voters and Jacksonian Democrats who already suspect he is a lefty. So just who on his team considered it a good idea to remind these crucial voters of their suspicions at this juncture?
That question goes to the heart of the point about Barack Obama and dissent: The president has no one with the intellectual integrity or the personal courage to tell him "no" – and besides, they all think just like him.
They also all think he can do no wrong.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter