If David Axelrod—the former Obama adviser whose memoir is soon to be published—is to be believed, the president received some advice on charm from an unlikely source early in his first term. The Daily News, which obtained an advance copy of Axelrod's book, relates the story:
On a trip to New York City in 2009, then Mayor Mike Bloomberg offered unsolicited advice about Obama's demeanor. "'You know what his problem is? You have to like people to be successful. You have to connect," Bloomberg told Axelrod. "I saw him greet people at the golf course. You probably told him to do it. But he doesn't feel it. You have to have that!"
Assuming the veracity of this quote, there's a lot to unpack here. It really is something for a mayor—even a generally popular big city mayor—to give a popularly elected president advice on how "to be successful," especially when that mayor's national, aisle-spanning unpopularity thwarted his plans to run for higher office.
It's even funnier that "you have to like people" is advice Mayor Michael Bloomberg would have given to anyone, considering that his considerable political success happened in spite of his irritable, hostile personality and obvious misanthropy. If Bloomberg liked people, as opposed to considering them a pesky but necessary nuisance in his otherwise perfectly engineered technocratic dream city, he managed to hide that fact for three long terms in office. Bloomberg didn't much seem to like critics of his treatment of pregnant employees, uneducated parents, New Yorkers of color who were tired of being routinely harassed by the NYPD, and people who criticized his atrocious homelessness policies. Not to mention reporters! ("'Miss!' Mr. Bloomberg began. 'I'm sorry that my English isn't apparently good enough for you.'" He hated reporters, but that doesn't count because everyone hates reporters. In general, Bloomberg just hated critics.
Funniest of all is that in 2009, Bloomberg was in the midst of reelection campaign based not on attracting the support of the largest number of people possible, but rather on suppressing turnout in order to win by default—which he did, barely, spending $157.27 for each vote he'd receive. (Which, honestly, was a bargain for Mayor Mike. The former mayor's actual, not particularly complicated secret to success was always simply to turn on his firehose of money and point wherever his support needed shoring up.)
This advice seems strange and insincere, considering the source, until you get to the bit about the golf course and remember that you have to interpret it in the context of the megarich global elite. Bloomberg is not referring to "connecting" with millions of people, as Barack Obama clearly did in 2008, but rather to "connecting" of the golf-course variety. And when he says "you have to like people," he does not mean "people" in the aggregate, but rather the specific sort of people a billionaire or senator or president would meet on a golf course. You know, "philanthropists" and oligarchs and war criminals and tech billionaires and real estate barons and Thomas Friedman. Those people, not people people. For Bloomberg, it's self-evident that you have to like those people—or at least make them feel liked—to be successful. And Barack Obama has never been particularly good at pretending to like people, it's true. It's one of his last remaining unambiguously admirable qualities.
But for a certain sort of "success"—and keep in mind Bloomberg might be overstating the degree to which people like him, as opposed to liking what he can do for them—Bloomberg is absolutely right. Bill Clinton knows how successful you can be when you like the right people. You get free private plane travel, for one thing. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie certainly knows what "connecting" can do for you.
So Michael Bloomberg was just looking out for Barack Obama, in his way. If you don't work on your glad-handing skills, Mr. President, you'll never get a ride on Air Epstein!
[Image of President Obama and then-Mayor Bloomberg "connecting" in Martha's Vineyard in August 2010 via AP]