For Obama, it just takes one to tango

Maureen Dowd /

Published Jan 20, 2013 at 04:00AM

WASHINGTON —

President Standoffish doesn't want to be seen as a stiff.

“Most people who know me know I'm a pretty friendly guy,” he protested at his White House news conference Monday. “And I like a good party.”

Maybe. But President Barack Obama always seems to be dancing alone. And that was the vibe of his swan-song news conference for Act 1 of his presidency.

His words were laced with an edge — churlish, chiding and self-pitying. He sardonically presented himself as Lonely Guy, shafted by the opposition, kicking around the White House on his own. Days before his second inauguration, he seemed to be intimating that the job he had fought so hard for and won against all odds was a bit of a chore, if not a bore.

When the man who once enraptured packed stadiums was asked by The Times' Jackie Calmes about the criticism that his administration has been too insular, he bristled a tad.

He acknowledged, while conveying that he didn't believe it, that he could “do a better job” on nurturing personal relationships with lawmakers. (Even if Republicans see him, as Politico's Glenn Thrush wrote, as “a pedantic, hectoring fuss-budget.”)

“Now that my girls are getting older, they don't want to spend that much time with me anyway,” he said, as reporters laughed, “so I'll be probably calling around, looking for somebody to play cards with me or something, because I'm getting kind of lonely in this big house. So maybe a whole bunch of members of the House Republican caucus want to come over and socialize more.”

Some Democrats wish he would start a regular game in the Indian Treaty Room so he could work on his poker face. Others are ready for a Bridget Jones approach: Love the president the way he is. Time to go with the flow.

It is striking how subdued the mood is as the president heads into his second inauguration party.

At his first one, the nation's capital was suffused with passion and wonder and dreams, nearly 2 million hope-besotted faces beaming up at the new president, hoping he could save their shirts, shrieking with delight as W.'s helicopter flew away over the Capitol.

Now the thrill is dimmed, with a series of grinding, petty fights ahead. Certainly, there's a sense among Democrats that they're happy Obama is president; the race was close enough that they got a metallic taste of how bad the country would have been if that bunch of backward Republicans got in.

But the cost of W.'s misbegotten wars and his mishandling of the economy overwhelmed Obama's first term. And Obama underwhelmed on traits everyone thought he'd excel at: negotiating, selling, charming, scaring, bully-pulpiting, mobilizing, dealing with Capitol Hill and, especially, communicating. It's taken the White House four years to develop a coherent message: Pay your bills.

Washington's mood is as gray as the weather, full of burning Republicans and yearning Democrats.

We're facing default. Again.

We're mired in partisan trash-talking. Still.

And despite the tragedy of the children riddled with bullets in Newtown, Conn., no one is expecting any consequential fixes to our absurdly lax gun laws.

Many top Democrats here feel distant from the White House. They like seeing him try to take it to the Republicans on money and, in the all-too-brief time he has left to get things done before he morphs into a lame duck, want him to follow through on guns and immigration, to say this is the right thing to do and this is what we got elected on and either get on board or get out of the way.

The president complained that even when he invites Republicans to a White House picnic and poses with their families, “it doesn't prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and blasting me for being a big-spending Socialist.”

Steve Stockman, a Republican elected to the House from Texas, has barely started work, but he's already threatening to start impeachment proceedings against the president if he takes executive action on gun safety measures.

A Greek chorus of historians and pols has been urging the president to spend more time schmoozing with Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as other presidents like Jefferson, Lincoln and LBJ did to get their way. But Obama still resists the idea that personal relationships can be pivotal, noting that his “suspicion” is that the issues will be resolved only if Americans “push hard,” vote recalcitrant lawmakers out and “reward folks who are trying to find common ground.”

And it's true that Republicans have snubbed the president. John Boehner blew off Obama's invites for six state dinners, and Mitch McConnell skipped all but one.

Unlike Chris Christie, Republicans here want to make sure that the president dances alone.

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