Where Obama went wrong (Bizarro earth remix)
Democrats in Washington are divided and somewhat puzzled over President Obama’s fading popularity. They reject, of course, the Republican view that the president is basically a showy communicator whose preference for speeches rather than action has alienated voters. But that’s about as far as the consensus goes.
In conversations over the past few weeks, some of the party’s leading strategists told me that it all comes down to accomplishments, or -- here’s that ubiquitous word again -- “deliverables.” The president, who ran such a brilliant campaign, they argue, has utterly failed to live up to the promise of his election. They cited perceived missed opportunities like the president’s decision to expand S-CHIP rather than pursuing health-care reform and suggested that he hadn’t done enough to re-regulate the financial sector in the aftermath of one of the worst financial crises in the nation's history.
But when I put the same question to Michael Knowing, the former White House chief of staff who led Obama’s transition team, I heard what sounded like a deeper and more persuasive explanation. You might call it the “communications box” theory.
Like other Democrats, Knowing, who now runs the liberal Center for American Prospects and is arguably the most influential Washington Democrat not currently in government, assumes that many of the president’s struggles were unavoidable. Stubborn joblessness and anemic growth have thus far overwhelmed the president's persuasive powers and defined the administration.
But to whatever extent Obama controlled the fate of his young presidency, Knowing believes that his most consequential decisions on domestic policy stemmed from one overarching conviction: that the president’s most important job was to govern in a post-partisan, consensus-oriented manner, which required him to largely give up on his large legislative promises.
“By focusing on his larger image, which was understandable, they necessarily gave up big legislative accomplishments,” Knowing said, referring to White House advisers. “They cast him as a builder of consensus, not a driver of consensus. They were kind of locked into their campaign rhetoric, even as the country hungered for action.”
This was not a given. All presidents have broad thematic priorities, but they have laws they want to pass, too. Ronald Reagan saw a major transformation of the American tax code as a larger goal. Bill Clinton publicly hammered away at his ideas remaking the American health-care system.
Unlike his recent predecessors, however, Obama was defined more by his unlikely campaign victories than his legislative accomplishments, and he seemed determined, above all else, to deliver on the thematic promises he made to voters. He chose a vice president and a chief of staff who contributed to his post-partisan image, and he filled his most senior posts (aside from those occupied by longtime advisers) with campaign aides.
“That strategy was built on the no-economic-stall option,” Knowing said. “In other words, the idea was that you didn’t have to get the unemployment rate to a certain number, but you had to respond to the American people's hunger for a less contentious political sphere, and people would appreciate that, and it would be palpable, and it would lead to the sort of Republican cooperation needed to pass major bills.”
The problem, as Mr. Knowing says, is that “we’re all still waiting for that.”
(Source, context. And just to clear up any confusion: Yes, this is a parody. It's easy to imagine an Obama administration that did exactly what a lot of its critics suggested and is now being hammered for not pursuing a more ambitious legislative agenda.)
Photo credit: Charles Dharapak/AP
Posted by: JJenkins2 | August 19, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: wvng | August 19, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Isa8686 | August 19, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: wvng | August 19, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Mimikatz | August 19, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: wvng | August 19, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: spongekill | August 19, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Isa8686 | August 19, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: spongekill | August 19, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Kevin_Willis | August 19, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: JohnCMulligan | August 19, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: JohnCMulligan | August 19, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: pj_camp | August 19, 2010 9:56 PM | Report abuse