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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

By Ezra Klein  |  August 19, 2010; 3:07 PM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
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Next: Is Obama FDR or Hoover? Or neither?


This counterfactual history was off in only one detail. Michael Knowing should have been called Lil Knowing. Or maybe Miss Knowing. Otherwise, perfect. (But maybe too subtle for most people. Especially those who didn't spill their coffee over this morning's NYT article already.)

Posted by: JJenkins2 | August 19, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

"“By focusing on his larger image, which was understandable, they necessarily gave up big legislative accomplishments" - what an odd statement. They may have given up on perfect progressive legislative accomplishments, but they have more big, substantive legislative accomplishments than anyone in a long time. And I have difficulty believing that, if they had abandoned reaching out to republicans, they would have done any better given absolute and gleeful republican obstructionism and having to pass legislation that the core group of conserva-Dems would support. I mean, seriously, Ben Nelson was out this week saying give back stimulus money.

Posted by: wvng | August 19, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

@wvng -- Re-read the piece. It's snark.

Posted by: Isa8686 | August 19, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Isa8686 - thanks. It seemed awfully odd for the sharp Mr. Klein to have such a dull and clueless post. And I obviously missed the note at the bottom.

My bad.

Posted by: wvng | August 19, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

And click on the blue word "source" at the bottom, to see exactly what Ezra is parodying.

As I said earlier today, I think the only thing that would have made a difference is more stimulus or some other form of action to get the economy going in the first few months. But both the economic situation and the situation vis a vis the GOP in Congress turned out to be much worse than most Obama people anticipated, and that made all the difference.

Posted by: Mimikatz | August 19, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

"more stimulus" and how to get that past "no more than $800b" Nelson? He and his fellow "fiscal hawks" were so pleased they reduced aid to states and other critical and stimulative aspects of the original bill.

Posted by: wvng | August 19, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Obama doesn't offer soothing soundbite communication to a greedy and impatient public, that's the main problem. That, coupled with the antagonistic political environment that has prevented so much from being accomplished, has created the impression of an aloof, ineffective leader. If Obama had a better understanding of public perceptions, he could probably have avoided a lot of the fallout - most of it is more related to his inability to clarify his actions than to what he's actually doing as president. People don't want to think too hard about it, so they'll just run with whatever assumptions a headline or soundbite can provide, and that's where Obama is lacking, providing easy fodder for the ever-vigilant mudslinging brigades of the GOP.

Posted by: spongekill | August 19, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

You know, as long as we're talking about counterfactuals, has anyone considered that as middling as Obama's approval ratings are right now, they may well be higher than anybody else would have under the same conditions? Frankly, 44% seems high considering how bad things have been, and when you see that many governors have approvals in the 20s, it's not hard to imagine that another president - either Dem or Rep - doing MUCH worse.

I actually think Hillary would probably have roughly similar ratings. But McCain? John Kerry? Another Democrat like 2008's almost-candidate Mark Warner?

Easy to imagine a far worse rating.

Posted by: Isa8686 | August 19, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

The entire country would have been drafted by now under McCain, because he would've declared war on every country in the world besides Israel.

Posted by: spongekill | August 19, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

"the Republican view that the president is basically a showy communicator whose preference for speeches rather than action has alienated voters. "

Ezra, I'm a Republican and even I think you're being too soft on how you're characterizing the Republicans criticism of Obama. ;)

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | August 19, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

But--there *has* been anemic growth and persistent joblessness. Counting the long-term unemployed, aren't we up to 15% of Americans out of work? Aren't we potentially looking down the barrel of the gun of a second dip in GDP?

And (so far wrt executive compensation) we're seeing federal regulators fail to exercise the latitude granted them by the rather formless financial regulatory reform bill.

Counterfactuals are more effective when you propose circumstances contrary to fact. (how's that for snark?)

Posted by: JohnCMulligan | August 19, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse

that said, lsa8686 is on target. what's up with a totally precedented approval rating getting all this pearl-clutching print?

don't we have a war somewhere that we could send these write-nothing journalists to? or a massive economic/governance experiment in detroit? or a slow, grinding catastrophe of environmental destruction and company-town-ism in the gulf? or an unflappable economic miracle in China?

Posted by: JohnCMulligan | August 19, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

Rahm Emmanuel is post partisan?


Posted by: pj_camp | August 19, 2010 9:56 PM | Report abuse

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