The final days of the agonizing long 2012 presidential campaign feature an incumbent president who can’t – or won’t – bring himself to employ the basic political necessity of every successful politician; an ability to sell yourself and your program and a shameless challenger who displays, more than anyone in recent American history, the audacity of re-invention. A Romney aide telegraphed months ago the “etch-a-sketch” re-make strategy that came to full effect in the first presidential debate.
The astute political analyst Charlie Cook nailed the essence of Mitt Romney months ago when he said the GOP nominee is “unencumbered by principle.” But, Romney knows a smile, confidence and a certain swagger cover up a lot of missing principles.
Obama, by contrast, appears more and more unencumbered by basic political skills like debating your opponent and talking sensibly about your priorities. Obama critics will say he has no program, but that’s unfair. For good or ill, he has signed historic legislation, but he just lacks the Bill Clinton-like skill to relate the art of governing to the drama of campaigning.
If Obama joins William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush as modern presidents who failed to win a second term, the cause will involve six political failings or, in some cases, failures to address important issues that mark the president’s four years. Taken together they present a damning indictment of a guy who, at a basic level, doesn’t get – or like – politics.
1) Obama reminds me of many, let’s call them progressive, politicians who harbor the belief that the righteousness of our policies obviates the need to explain those policies on a clear, concise form that American voters understand. Obama has never been able – or willing – to reduce the essence of his historic health insurance legislation to a bumper sticker. Is the legislation about all Americans banding together to make certain that all of us have access to affordable care? Is it about regulating insurance companies? Is it about insuring that no one is denied insurance due to some pre-existing condition? Obama ceded the messaging about the singular accomplishment of his term to his opponents because he couldn’t make an effective argument for a policy that presidents going back to Teddy Roosevelt have called for. It is an astonishing failure at a basic level of political communications.
2) Obama also made a fundamental mistaking in granting way too much control over his legislative agenda to Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Democrats. The White House had the upper hand, including a Congressional majority, in the first two years of Obama’s presidency. Obama should have used public and private persuasion on Congress, but he never stooped to get his hands dirty in the inside game of Washington politics. For the most part the president was absent from the big strategy and message for the first two years and Pelosi set about proving she is a great politician for San Francisco, who doesn’t get Peoria. One wonders if Obama has read Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson or Woodrow Wilson’ disastrous approach to Congress in the post-World War I period. He should.
3) The president made a fundamental and gravely serious political mistake in not focusing like a laser on the economy in the wake of the 2008 election. Granted he did push a stimulus – and then failed to follow up and sell its benefits – but he also pivoted almost immediately from an economic focus to a health care focus. Health care should have waited. Obama neither got or attempted to get any credit for keeping the U.S. economy from going off a cliff in early 2009 and he continues to pay for that lack of political awareness. A modestly skilled political operative would have avoided such a mistake. The economy always comes first, just ask Hoover.
4) Amid much fanfare, Obama appointed a blue ribbon commission to recommend solutions to the nation’s fiscal and budget challenges and then walked away from the sensible recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson Commission. It was a major blunder on both substantive and political grounds. Congress would very likely not have embraced the essence of Bowles-Simpson, as indeed Pelosi and Co. refused to do, but had Obama embraced the Commission’s recommendations and held Erskine Bowles and Al Simpson close they would have given the president bipartisan political and policy cover during the entire campaign season. Should Obama have then won the election, he could have claimed a clear mandate to do something serious about the deficit, taxes and entitlements – a truly historic second-term agenda. As it turns out Obama’s fiscal and deficit approach is as vacuous as Romney’s. Failing to embrace his own Commission’s recommendation was a huge unforced political error.
5) Obama has never been clear about what caused the country’s near economic disaster in 2008. He has never spelled out why the country came so close to a second Great Depression and never really held anyone accountable. Faced with a similar set of circumstances in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt identified the villains as greedy bankers and Wall Street speculators. He went after them with regulation and rhetoric. Obama, again ceding the lead to Congress, let Barney Frank become the face of financial reform and regulation. Obama should have seized the moment to define a new vision for the American economy – as FDR did – and called out the hedge fund managers and engineers of credit default swaps. He should have defined his presidency by taking on the big banks and calling, as ironically Sanford Weill one of the biggest proponents of modern U.S. mega-banking has, for the breakup of the big banks. It would have been an historic and defining moment. The politically cautious Obama missed it.
6) All five of these political and policy failures converge now to create the single biggest Obama political problem – he has no convincing story to tell about his years in office and little to say about what a second term could look like. Skillful politicians are always thinking about how they talk about what they are trying to accomplish, who is hindering their efforts, who is to blame and what the future looks like. Obama lacks that political gene.
If, as Maureen Dowd has written recently, Obama hates to sell himself or thinks that aspect of political leadership is beneath him he may well join Taft, Hoover and the others as “failed” modern presidents. After all, history does not treat one-termers very well and we do tend to reward the greatness of American presidents who display an ability to grow into the challenges the office presents. One wonders if Barack Obama, a man of obvious and substantial intellectual and rhetorical skills, can be self aware enough to know that being righteous in politics is never enough. His time is short.