If Barack Obama holds off a determined and extraordinarily well-financed challenge from Mitt Romney and wins a second term in November it will be in spite of his accomplishments and first term record, not because of them.
With 112 days to go until the election, Obama is on the attack and not above the fray. From a political strategy standpoint he may have no other option if he hopes to win.
Romney is correct in his basic assessment of the Obama strategy: the president and his team need to rip Romney, not run on the first term record. Obama has presided over a dismal economy – much of which he inherited – yet it’s clear that after three-plus years he owns the unemployment rate and the uncertainty felt in the country. The president had the guts and decisiveness to get bin Laden, but Syria or Pakistan or Afghanistan could blow sky high any minute. He passed historic health insurance reform, but outsourced any positive message about that accomplishment to people like Nancy Pelosi, who took a polarizing issue and made it worse. To say that Obama’s term has been a mixed bag is to be generous.
Obama was asked last week about his term and, because he’s more self- reflective than the buttoned up Romney, he offered some analysis to CBS’s Charlie Rose.
“When I think about what we’ve done well and what we haven’t done well, the mistake of my first term — couple of years — was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right,” Obama said. “And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”
Romney immediately pounced saying, “being president is not about telling stories,” but in fact that is a sizable part of the job. Creating a sense of shared national ambition and fostering an understanding that Americans are all in this together is a presidential job. Franklin Roosevelt knew that. So did Abraham Lincoln.
Still, Obama did not address the other equally important part of the job that he has not gotten right since 2008 and that is the role of what I’ll call “politician in chief.”
Obama, a gifted orator, has not been able, perhaps for reasons of personality, to grasp the levers that would permit him to use the inherent power of the presidency to build political relationships and accumulate political chits. In short, he’s no Lyndon Johnson, FDR or Ronald Reagan in understanding that a president can use the power and prestige of the world’s most powerful position to bend partisanship.
In politics, as in most every walk of life, things often get done not for reasons of, as Obama said, “getting the policy right,” but because two people or a group of people come to trust and value each other. You can’t trust someone when you have no personal relationship with them.
One of the great powers of the presidency, by most accounts largely unused by Obama, is the power to, well, schmooze. This president is not a retail politician. He cultivates a cool and detached persona. Small talk and small kindnesses, a call to the White House for lunch or coffee, a golf outing or a weekend at Camp David, are not part of Obama’s DNA.
Of course, Obama has had to navigate an incredibly nasty and overtly partisan Washington, D.C. environment during his time in the White House, but his response to that environment – and his self-awareness about not telling a compelling story is part of the response – has almost entirely been an outside game. Washington is an inside town.
If Obama were as good at small ball, personal politics – the late night phone calls, the ride on Air Force One, the cozy dinner in the family quarters – as he is on the stump, he might have had a real chance to put a dent in the messy climate in the nation’s capitol.
Obama made a strategic error, in my view, in spending his vast political capital right after the 2008 election on months of wrangling over the health care legislation. It’s easy to see now – and should have been seen then – that his focus needed to be on the economy, but he also failed in mounting any charm offensive with anyone on the other side of the political divide.
It took Obama more than half his term to invite the golf loving House Speaker John Boehner to the first tee. The two most important men in Washington played 18 holes and then strapped the political guns back on and started shooting. Boehner is a partisan, of course, and largely captive to the Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives, but Obama, another partisan, never really tried to make the Speaker a friendly partisan. Did Boehner try? No, but then again it’s not his job to cultivate the president. Politics just doesn’t work that way and Washington certainly doesn’t work that way.
Really successful politicians demonstrate an ability to grow in office. They learn new tricks. Obama isn’t a natural schmoozer and so far hasn’t seen the virtue in even trying to woo his adversaries, but for a more successful second term he will needs to learn how to use the personal power of his office. Politics is not all about policy by any means. The soft skills of personal connections are the grease that can make the political gears turn.
Obama partisans will say, but how can you schmooze people who really, really dislike you? Good question and no one ever wins over every hide-bound partisan street fighter, but there is virtue and a PR reward in even trying and failing. Americans may hate partisan gridlock, but they hate even more when kindness and decency is met by nastiness. At the very least, a president can win the PR battle.
Mitt Romney doesn’t appear to have a Schmoozer-in-Chief gene, either, which unfortunately means the next president is probably going to be unable to use some of the real power that automatically goes with the job. You don’t have to be a nice guy or a smiling pushover to be president, but you do have to use all the elements of power – big and little – to show the other side, and the American people, that you are working to ease the nastiness.