(Photo: White House/Pete Souza)
Jonathan Powell's book on Northern Ireland also features the occasional cameo from Bill Clinton, who showed an impressive commitment to the process throughout. In the crucial final 24 hours before the Good Friday agreement Clinton was on the phone to both sides, encouraging and reassuring. From the book:
For good measure Tony phoned President Clinton and asked him to call Adams. At the time we thought Clinton had called Adams once, but it turns out from Adams's memoirs that he in fact called him three times - at 1am, 2.30 and 4.45. The President stayed up all night following what was going on in the negotiations and talking to George Mitchell, and, if Adams's account is to be believed, called Adams to shoot the breeze, rather than to put pressure on him.
Which was, of course, exactly the right way to play it at that point. What you get above all from Powell's account of these negotiations is how much great political agreements can depend on the ebb and flow of emotion - on insecurities and grudges and night fears; the many vulnerabilities to which egos, even or especially those of politicians, are subject.
Would Obama have been much use in similar circumstances? I doubt it. Not because his intentions aren't good or his grasp of complex issues insufficient, but because he doesn't do people in the way that Clinton did. He's not really interested in the arts of personal persuasion.
I thought of this when I read the latest column by Peggy Noonan, Obama's most eloquent and devastating critic amongst the commentariat. She has this to say about the painful fiscal decisions that the winner of November's election will have to confront:
The next president will have to wrangle with Congress, and when lawmakers balk, he'll have to go over their heads and tell the American people the plan, the reasons it will work, and why it's fair and good. He'll have to get them to tell their congressmen, by phone calls and mail and by collaring them in the neighborhood and at the town hall, to back the president...The members go to the speaker, and suddenly the speaker is knocking back a drink with the president, and in the end a deal gets made. Things get pushed inch by inch toward progress, and suddenly there's a sense things can work again...
Anyway, the next president will have to do that sort of thing, and it will take deep political gifts. We have not seen that genius in Mr. Obama. Whether you will vote for him or not, you know you haven't seen it. He seems to view politics as his weary duty, something he had to do on his way to greatness.
I think this is funny - 'weary duty' - because it's true. Obama does seem to have a distaste for politics, or politicking. He stands aloof from Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill. He doesn't do social calls or backroom wrangling. He doesn't enjoy rounds of golf with his opponents or indeed with members of his own side; he doesn't invite congressmen round for drinks or phone them at midnight or take their calls at 2am. Hell, he has Biden for that.
But people skills are most valuable in a leader when politics is polarised, as it is now. LBJ's feat of getting civil rights legislation through a Congress which was in substantial part fiercely opposed to it was a triumph of the kind of relentless, personalised persuasion that Blair and Clinton practiced during the Irish peace process (to read Clinton paying tribute to Johnson's genius in this regard, read this).
Politics, especially at these crunch points, isn't just about policy positions, but the messier business of psychology. It's fine to talk about bringing people together in the abstract. But the reality of doing so involves the kind of dirty work that Obama has shown himself so far unwilling or unable to carry out.
The same applies to appeals to voters. Obama likes the big set-piece speech. But every policy he has backed, from the stimulus to healthcare, has declined in popularity the more speeches he made about it. His speeches explain things very well, very precisely. But they don't change minds.
This, it turns out, was the big hole in Obama's campaign rhetoric of unification, of bringing red and blue together. He spoke about it eloquently, but he was never going to a be the president who put it into action. Obama is a preacher, not a persuader. He's terrific if you already agree with him, but doesn't have much impact on those who don't.
Peggy Noonan, it should be said, has no faith that Mitt Romney is the man for the moment either. She is concerned that as America steams towards its fiscal iceberg, there is no political genius on his way to the bridge, ready to help the nation's polity navigate around it. It's hard to disagree.