Obama's Problem

Yesterday, I looked at Romney’s problem, the need to continually conciliate a rabid base while not alienating moderate, swing voters, a task made more difficult because Romney simply does not talk or walk like either a wild-eyed libertarian or an evangelical zealot.

For President Obama, the problem is difficult but it also has to do with the fact that he has proven himself incapable of talking and walking like his party’s base. He, like Romney, is stuck with a personality that is strangely out-of-touch with the job he holds.

Yesterday, liberal columnist Richard Cohen touched on this aspect of Obama’s presidency: “Obama is something of a cold fish, which may be something he cannot help, but he is also a lazy politician, unwilling – not unable – to do the telephoning and backslapping that his job requires.” This is one of the most frequent complaints in Washington, that the President is inaccessible, that members of Congress and governors have trouble getting things from the president’s staff, that the close-knit trio of Axelrod, Plouffe and Jarrett hold all the cards, etc. the president is allowed to be a wonk. Bill Clinton was a wonk also. But, Clinton also was adroit at the backslapping, cajoling, telephoning part of his job. Obama has many admirers in Washington officialdom but very few friends.

This inability to understand, or to execute, basic politics shows itself in many ways. Obama has allowed himself to become a victim of his own narrative. When seeking the presidency in 2008, narrative was what he had. He promised not only to address certain issues with certain core Democratic values, he promised to transform the way politics gets done in Washington. He presented himself as a transformative figure, someone able to break the gridlock, to reach across party lines, to put America on a different trajectory. How many times did we hear about his buddy Sen. Tom Coburn, the arch-Republican from Oklahoma? At the time, many of us thought Obama a bit naïve, although even I have been shocked at the complete, total rejectionism the GOP in Congress has adopted. Still, we can now see in a way that was not so obvious in 2008, that Obama’s narrative about transforming politics was dangerous. One should not promise what one can’t deliver.

More importantly, the transformation Obama embodied was national not personal, but the two got confused in was that helped his campaign, so he did not upset the apple cart. The election of a black man to the presidency of the United States less than fifty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act was a stunning achievement. But, it was not Axelrod’s and Plouffe’s achievement, it was the American people’s. We turned out to be less beholden to our racist past than we thought. Election night in 2008 was a great night to be alive, even if you did not support Obama. The film “Game Change” captures some of this when the Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s campaign manager, tells Sarah Palin that she cannot break with tradition and give a speech about McCain on election night, that the country had just elected the first African-American president in its history and that the traditions enacted on election night, the phone call and the concession speech, were going to be honored because of the legitimacy they confer on the democratic process itself. We Americans made history that night. Axelrod, Plouffe and most especially the President, get tons of credit, but it was the voters that made history.
On election night 2008, very few people, including Obama, realized just how deep the economic downturn was. Even in January, as he prepared to take office, when the economic numbers about the last quarter of 2008 were released, no one realized how bad it was. Those numbers were subsequently revised downward, but the problem was not just about the numbers. The problem was the psychology of the economic collapse. People saw their 401k’s wiped out. The idea that middle class folk can and should tie their future to the stock market through these retirement investment vehicles had been great for the stock market for thirty years, and especially for those titans of the financial sector who oversee the stock market, but for those nearing retirement in 2008, suddenly the risks were not illusory, they were real. Everyone grew cautious. And instead of facing the steepness of the economic decline head on, we got happy talk from Obama and his economic team: Worried about further dampening investor confidence, they were unwilling to admit the gravity of the situation, perhaps even to themselves. I do not blame Obama for the anemic recovery. I do blame him for failing to explain the dire economic situation to the American people in ways they could understand.

It is strange to think that Obama, hailed as the great communicator ever since he stepped onto the national political stage with his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, should have proven to be such a lousy communicator once elected. It is strange that someone who sees himself, or said he sees himself, as transformative, has been so allergic to transforming himself to the needs of his office. His wonkishness may satisfy his intellectual curiosity, but it has not provided the nation with a road map they can hold in their hands and determine where we are going as a nation.

Now, faced with a still sluggish economy, he is at the mercy of forces beyond his control. If the next three months of labor statistics are as bad as the last three, he will lose. His candidacy this year requires him to fight like Muhammed Ali, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. Certainly, he has begun to sting Romney, raising questions about Bain Capital and its involvement in outsourcing jobs, followed by questions about his off-shore bank accounts, which reinforce the outsourcing concerns at Bain, all the while proclaiming to the nation – this guy Romney is not like you and me. But, Obama and his campaign team must realize that they are not really in the ring with Romney, they are in the ring with the economy, and the economy punches like Joe Frazier, hard, body blows, delivered without elegance but delivered nonetheless. If Obama wants to win this fight, he not only needs to learn how to punch back, he needs to be able to explain it to the rest of us.

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