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David Ignatius

Destination isolation

WASHINGTON — He has been running toward it for years, maybe his whole adult life, and suddenly he has arrived. And what he discovers is that inside his new cocoon of Secret Service protection, the presidency of the United States is a very lonely job.

That's what Barack Obama confided in a revealing interview last Sunday with CBS's 60 Minutes. Steve Kroft asked him if he had received any good advice from former presidents, and his answer was poignant.

"You know, they were all incredibly gracious," Obama said. "But I think all of them recognized that there's a certain loneliness to the job. That, you know, you'll get advice, and you'll get counsel. Ultimately, you're the person who's going to be making decisions. And I think that even now, you know, I — you can already feel that fact."

What did it feel like when Obama realized he would be president? "Well, I'm not sure it's sunk in yet," he answered. His wife, Michelle, tried to put it into words, and he agreed in wonderment, "How about that?"

The man who has spent his life "becoming," must now "be." Obama has been the sojourner, as David Brooks of the New York Times has written, passing through places and institutions, alighting but never putting down deep roots. He has always been on his way elsewhere, in a journey of discovery and self-actualization that may be unmatched in American political history. And now he is at the doorstep of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Obama plays on a different stage now, and it's less forgiving. After a zero-defect campaign, the transition team has already begun to make some mistakes. The choice of Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff was a good one, but awkwardly handled; the news media were told he had been offered the job before he had agreed to accept it, setting both of them up for embarrassment if he refused.

And this week, there was the public rumination about Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. This may be another self-inflicted wound. Clinton is immensely talented, but it could be the wrong job for her since it has the potential to undermine Obama's own transformational role in foreign policy — perhaps the greatest opportunity he has. Why subcontract this to Clinton and her entourage?

And yet, after the public speculation, Obama will seem to be dissing Clinton and her supporters if she doesn't get the job.

And then there's the incredible shrinking vice president-elect, Joe Biden. Where is he these days? Do they have him in a box? He can't be happy at the idea of considering Clinton as foreign policy czarina — wasn't Biden's foreign policy savvy the reason he was picked?

Obama has embraced the idea of a strong Cabinet of people who might otherwise be feuding, the "Team of Rivals" in historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's account of Abraham Lincoln's administration. FDR did much the same thing, forming a Cabinet of powerful, contentious personalities, and then making decisions after they had battled out the various policy choices. It sounds good when you attach the aura of Lincoln and Roosevelt, but you have to wonder whether internal discord really makes for good governance. Before embracing a team of rivals, Obama should recall the interagency battles that afflicted the Carter administration, or for that matter, the administration of George W. Bush.

The selection Wednesday of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle as secretary of health and human services gives the team of rivals idea a positive face, but only because he's not really a rival.

Now that the perpetual traveler has arrived, who will puncture that bubble of presidential loneliness? Presidents can spin into their own twilight zone, isolated in a crowd of advisers and hangers-on and become prone to serious misjudgments. Think of Richard Nixon, or Lyndon Johnson, or Bush.

On this question, the 60 Minutes interview gave us an encouraging answer. Obama's reality check will come from his wife, Michelle. When he told Kroft that she had asked him on election night if he was going to take the kids to school the next day, she broke in: "I didn't say that." When he claimed that he liked washing the dishes, she interjected: "You?"

You've got to like that. And you have to believe that a man who can smile while his wife lovingly, genially puts him in his place is a pretty sane guy. In this transition time, when the traveler is finally about to reach his destination, that's reassuring.

David Ignatius' e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

© Washington Post Writers Group

Destination isolation 11/21/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 23, 2008 7:51am]

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