Obama's Navel-Gazing

[ Posted Thursday, October 21st, 2010 – 18:17 UTC ]

President Obama, of late, has been doing quite a bit of soul-searching over his first two years in office. It is odd for this to be made public just before an election, instead of just after one, but it does show, at the very least, that Obama is starting to learn some important lessons from his performance so far. Of course, it can be argued that it may be too late for Obama to have learned these lessons, but then he still does have over half of his term to serve -- so I say better late than never, personally. And (without a shred of evidence to make such a claim) I would also say that the fact that Obama's realization that he has room for improvement comes almost immediately after Rahm Emanuel left the White House is, indeed, no coincidence.

President Obama gave his navel-gazing interview to the New York Times Magazine, where he looks both forward and back. He has also spoken elsewhere this week on a similar theme. And one of the biggest areas for improvement he identifies is on his ability to communicate better why he thinks his agenda is the best one for America to the public.

Some of us have been saying this from the very beginning, of course. From an article I wrote about two weeks after he took office, as the stimulus package fight was happening in Congress:

Obama has it in him. We've seen it, over and over on the campaign trail. He has done an admirable job of lowering expectations for his administration by repeatedly warning that times are going to be tough for some time to come. But he's got to start being a better salesman for his solution to the problem. He (or his appointed cheerleaders) need to do a better job of selling this package to the American people. Because, for the most part, the public has been inundated with Republican talking points about how bad and evil the plan is, and people have not adequately heard the other side of the story.

If Democrats don't start doing a better job of making their case, they risk plummeting support for the next items on their agenda. They've probably got the votes to get the stimulus package through even without defending it to the press and to the public, but remember that this is just the first step. There are other important legislative battles to come. The way to win these battles is to get popular opinion overwhelmingly behind the master plan. What worries me is that Democrats just aren't doing so very effectively at the start of the process.

A few days later, I returned to the same theme:

Obama's problem is twofold. He seems to have fired all his campaign speechwriters, and he's not getting very effective support from his own congressional leadership.

The first problem affects both Obama and Democrats in Congress -- the messaging has been horrible. You need to have two flavors of your message: a short version and a long version. I've heard neither from Democrats so far, or perhaps I've heard too many different ones for a clear theme to emerge. It's the old "herding cats" problem Democrats can't seem to shake -- their absolute and utter failure to create consistent message discipline across the entire party.

Think about it. What are the Republican soundbites? This is a "spending plan." Stimulus packages should be "timely, targeted, and temporary." I am no right-winger or Republican, and I know both of these off the top of my head. Because they keep to the message, they keep it short, and they repeat it in so many places that eventually I hear it.

So what is the Democratic response? I have no idea. I should, as I keep up on the news, but I really don't. Now, I know what it should be. That's easy. "Jobs, jobs, jobs." Or how about "infrastructure investment means good American jobs and means Americans building our own future."

This stuff is just not rocket science, folks. It's actually pretty easy to come up with soundbites Democrats should be using (but, for some inexplicable reason, aren't). And I can come up with these even though I really have no idea what's in the bill. I have no idea (other than to know about the programs Republicans are attacking, and one or two Democratic issues) because they haven't told me. There is a time for soundbites, and a time for laundry lists. And we've gotten neither from our party leaders -- from Obama on down.

And this was just on the stimulus package. I'm sure I could find plenty of examples during the year-long healthcare reform debate where I offered Obama almost exactly the same advice: get out there and sell your plan! Belatedly, Obama has realized that Washington is not academia, and public opinion actually matters to the scope of the debate. When the White House sits back on the sidelines and allows Congress to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to legislative details, then President Obama is denying himself the strongest weapon in the Democrats' arsenal -- a strong voice from the top explaining why we want to change things, and exactly how we are going to change them. Absent that, the Republicans flood the airwaves with their version of reality, unanswered.

The second thing Obama realized is that he blew it in the negotiations for the stimulus package. This has been a constant problem for Democrats in the past two years, either emanating from the White House or from Harry Reid's office in the Senate. The Democrats' negotiating position on many major issues can be summed up as: before the fight begins, give away your strongest bargaining points to the other side, and ask for nothing in return.

Obama's stimulus, everyone forgets, was a pretty fair compromise. The new Congress was split almost perfectly 60% Democratic and 40% Republican. The stimulus was exactly the same proportion -- 60% Democrat-supported spending, and 40% Republican tax cuts. The only problem with it was, the compromise happened before Obama even spoke to the Republicans, therefore they didn't even really take part. This didn't mean Obama didn't concede a whole lot to the Republican position, but it did mean that the Republicans weren't able to take any sort of political credit for the outcome. This was confusing at the time, and Obama has finally realized his mistake. He now says that he should have "let the Republicans insist on the tax cuts," and he is exactly right.

His first offer on the stimulus should have been "95% of what Democrats want, and 5% tax cuts" -- and then he should have (seemingly reluctantly) allowed Republicans to howl, and to demand more tax cuts. Again, reluctantly (but in the spirit of bipartisanship), he should have let them "bargain him down" to having 40% of the stimulus money be tax cuts. Republicans would puff their chests, and go off and crow about how they had strong-armed the president into giving them much more than he wanted to, which would have given Republicans buy-in to the entire concept, and may have even picked up a few actual Republican votes when it reached the floors of Congress. It's debatable whether that is true or not, but now we'll never know.

Once again, at the time, I wrote:

Obama's first big legislative test had some minor problems. Because of his appointees' problems, he was thrown off his stride in the middle of the process. He waited too long to get out and start selling his plan. His message could have been tighter and more focused. And he has learned that instead of offering Republicans a generous amount of what they want in a first offer that was also pretty much a final offer (the initial 40% was tax cuts, which surprised some Republicans who expected much less), he should be seen as "allowing them to talk him down" in order to share the political credit, even with House Republicans.

Now, other than wallowing in the thrill of saying "I told you so," (which, of course, would be beneath me... ahem), I have to say that hearing a little self-reflection from Barack Obama right now is a good thing, overall. Well, maybe not "right now" (the timing of all of this still strikes me as very odd, right before an election), but that's a minor quibble. No matter what the actual election results in a few weeks, Obama is going to have to go through a "mid-course correction." This is normal -- almost every president goes through this sort of thing after his first midterms (and sometimes after his second, even). The White House team is already been shaken up a bit before the election, from advisors leaving or announcing their immanent departure. This will doubtlessly continue after the election as well, and (again) is quite normal and expected.

President Obama is going to have to change gears, metaphorically, dealing with the next Congress no matter which party nominally controls which chamber -- because both chambers are going to be so close to evenly split that utter gridlock for the next two years is a very real possibility. And that requires a different set of tactics from the White House than those Obama's been using (sometimes effectively, sometimes not) over the past two years.

So it's good that Obama's been thinking about this sort of thing, no matter what happens. And -- again, without any tangible evidence to back me up -- I think this happening was made possible by the departure of Rahm Emanuel from the White House. Because somehow I just can't picture this type of self-reflection, and identifying these particular problems, with Rahm still in the most important job inside the West Wing.

We'll see what happens after the election, most especially in the lame duck session of Congress to follow. Sometimes a bit of navel-gazing is good for the soul, but only if you apply the lessons you learn in doing so.


[Research Note: This didn't have any place in this article, but I came across the following talking point I wrote in the same period as the above articles I quoted. I include it so that you may read it, and file it in the "life imitates art" category. Under the heading "Socialism isn't bad when your house is on fire," I wrote:

"Republicans seem to want to label anything government does nowadays as 'socialism.' But you know what? When your house is on fire, you want the fire department to show up and put it out. You don't want to have to write them a check before they start pumping water. And you don't want them to only respond to houses with the ability to pay their fees. So why is what Republicans are calling 'socialism' fine for our police forces, our firefighters, our roads, our air traffic control, our military, and our national parks... but not fine for other things as well? By their definition, we have been a 'socialist' country for decades now! The whole argument is ridiculous on the face of it."]


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


8 Comments on “Obama's Navel-Gazing”

  1. [1] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Amen, CW.

    BTW- I'm not sure if you've seen much of Austan Goolsbee. But he is great at everything you wrote about above. Particularly when it comes to economics.

    Here's to seeing more of Mr. Goolsbee.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    akadjian -

    Yeah, I have high hopes for Goolsbee, personally.

    What we need right now is a cross between Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, in terms of laying out the way things are to the American public.

    Good point.


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    My beef with Obama's navel-searching of late is that it still smacks of self-serving BS..

    The way he puts out his answers it's clear that he still feels that he was right and it's everyone else's fault that they don't see things his way..

    This is a President who simply cannot say, "I was wrong and others were right."

    THAT is going to be his downfall...

    If someone can't admit that they are wrong, if someone won't even admit to the possibility that they are wrong, they will ALWAYS be wrong..

    This goes for just about anything in life, including posting to political blogs (hint hint hint) :D


  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    Another problem with Obama,0,6665217.story

    He's become the very thing he campaigned against in 2008.

    An illogical, irrational and hysterical fear-monger...


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Would that be "fear monger-er"??? :D


  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    No, actually "fear monger" is correct.

    I bet I can name you ten times Obama has admitted he was wrong, for every one time you can name from Dubya.

    As you would say:




  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    I bet I can name you ten times Obama has admitted he was wrong, for every one time you can name from Dubya.

    Yer on.....

    I'll settle for just ONE time that Obama has said, "I WAS WRONG" without any qualification or mitigation or explanation...

    As For Bush saying it.. Lemme read his new book and I'll let you know.. :D


  8. [8] 
    Americulchie wrote:

    Chris I think you may be on to something.I myself was drawn to Mr.Obama because he is a cerebral person,that is both his strength and his weakness.It seems to me a vast number of Americans don't "get" Obama and I really am at a loss to explain that other than obvious anti-intellectualism of the ordinary American.

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