Obama's Mystifying Strategy

September 15, 2010

I don't often expect to find myself supportive of President Barack Obama. But I didn't think I'd be as mystified by his actions over the past few months as I have been.

Mr. Obama and his team won a well-deserved reputation during the 2008 campaign for message discipline and a keen appreciation for how Americans would receive his words and actions.

That's why it's so surprising that, in just 20 months, Mr. Obama has lost control of his presidency's narrative. He has done things that are inexplicable, creating the impression of a White House that is clueless, rudderless and arrogant.

For example, what was to be gained by the president attacking the largely unknown House minority leader, John Boehner, last week? Set aside the unfairness of the charges and focus only on the efficacy of the president lowering himself that way.

There is far too little time before the midterm election to demonize Mr. Boehner as President Bill Clinton so effectively did to Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. That took a concerted White House effort over nearly two years that cost tens of millions of dollars for ads.

And does Mr. Obama think this will make it easier to work with Mr. Boehner after Nov. 2 if Republicans take the House and he becomes the speaker? After all, one of the public's biggest disappointments with this president is that he has failed miserably in his promise to change the political tone.

Mr. Obama's personal attacks on the GOP leader may be therapeutic for him and send a thrill up the leg of left-wingers, but it has cost him (and his party) dearly with independents and college-educated voters. In a little more than a year and a half, the president has lost a third of his support among independents, many of whom are ready to punish Democrats at the polls.

Then there's this oddity: Why did the president raise the issue of tax cuts so close to the election? Americans now trust the GOP over Democrats on taxes by 52% to 36%, according to the Aug. 23-24 Rasmussen survey.

The president has yet to offer up legislation that spells out details of his proposal, like the $3 trillion in new taxes to offset keeping the Bush tax cuts just for the middle class. Democrats are in disarray with increasing numbers of them bucking Mr. Obama and endorsing the Bush tax cuts. Mr. Obama's failure to pass anything this fall, when Democrats have big congressional majorities, will simply add to the emerging narrative of incompetence.

So will the failure to coordinate the Democratic message on jobs, stimulus, energy, immigration and other issues. This has led to campaign themes being used briefly and then discarded like tissues, hurting Democratic chances in the midterms.

This reactive, scattershot approach has kept Mr. Obama from laying the groundwork for any major legislative initiative for 2012. And the administration's current policies make it unlikely the economy will grow at the rate of between 8% and 9% per quarter it did in the runup to Ronald Reagan's 1984 reelection.

Also puzzling is Mr. Obama gratuitously wading into the mosque issue. The way he handled the issue hurt America abroad. The New York Times headline after his comments at his White House Iftar dinner on Aug. 13 said "Obama Strongly Backs Islam Center Near 9/11 Site." After he backtracked less than 14 hours later, the Washington Post headline blared "Obama: Backing Muslims' right to build NYC mosque is not an endorsement." That flip-flop made him look weak.

There have been other less serious public relations missteps, including lavish vacations and playing more golf in 20 months than his predecessor did in eight years. These are not big deals, but they are unlikely to sit well with American families hard-pressed to get to the beach, lake or park once during this "recovery summer." It's little wonder that 49% of voters in this week's Quinnipiac Poll say Mr. Obama does not share their values.

It is too late for Mr. Obama to do a makeover before the midterms. After suffering a massive repudiation in November, will Mr. Obama continue down this road of attacks, recriminations and self-pity? Or will he return to the conciliatory, inspirational themes of his 2008 campaign? If his choice is the latter, the president will have to prove himself by deeds. His words have been utterly devalued.

Personnel is policy, so the president's choices to replace likely-to-depart White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and perhaps-resigning senior adviser David Axelrod will be telling. Will Mr. Obama chose insularity over outreach and partisanship over leadership? For his sake as well as America's, let's hope the midterms bring about real hope and change at the White House.

This article originally appeared on on Wednesday, September 15, 2010.

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