What does it matter if Obama doesn't buddy up to his former colleagues?
He needs those relationships to advance his agenda in Congress. And the strained ties with legislators are emblematic of a broader problem for Obama rooted in his tendency to keep a tight inner circle.
"Instead of going out and talking to his enemies, making friends and schmoozing, or banging heads together with them or whatever, you can see that the man is diffident — deeply, deeply diffident about the kinds of politicking that are necessary to build consensus," says Nigel Nicholson, a professor at the London Business School who has written a book about leadership in which Obama is a frequent topic.
The president has been getting plenty of that kind of advice in recent weeks. Critics called for a sweeping shakeup of his White House inner circle. Even his allies called for someone — anyone — to be fired for the health care failures.
Obama has responded in his typically restrained fashion. No one has lost a job over the massive health care screw-up, though the White House hasn't ruled that out. And while the president is doing some minor shuffling in the West Wing, he's largely bringing in people he already knows.
To critics, the limited staff changes smack of a White House that doesn't fully understand the depths of its problems. But presidential friend Ron Kirk said they are indicative of Obama's "fairly dispassionate temperament," which allows him to hold steady in the face of adversity.
"He understands that overreacting to any one development in the moment is not the best way to achieve a long-term and stable objective," said Kirk, who served as U.S. trade representative in Obama's first term.
The president's agenda for his sixth year in office is a stark reminder of how little he accomplished in 2013.
Obama plans to make another run at immigration reform. He'll seek to increase the minimum wage and expand access to early childhood education, proposals he first outlined in his 2013 State of the Union address. And he'll look to implement key elements of the climate change speech he delivered earlier this year, many of which are stagnant.
Foreign policy could be an oasis for the struggling second-term president. With Russia's help, he turned his public indecision over attacking Syria into an unexpected agreement to strip President Bashar Assad of his chemical weapons, though the success of the effort won't be known for some time and the civil war in Syria rages on. Obama also authorized daring secret negotiations with Iran, resulting in an interim nuclear agreement. But even the president says the prospects of getting a final deal are only 50-50.
In a year-end news conference, the president optimistically predicted that 2014 would be "a breakthrough year for America."
But Obama's dismal standings in the polls suggest he can't count on a public groundswell to propel his agenda. The heady days of 2009 when aides boasted of Obama as "the best brand on earth" are long gone.
"We all wear thin with the American people after a while," says McCain, though he warns against counting out any president with three years left to govern — particularly this one.
"To count a man of that talent out at this point in time in his administration would be a huge mistake," he says.
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