It is significant, to me at least, that President Barack Obama's true first anniversary in office is about to be overshadowed by a special election to fill a Senate seat in Massachusetts. Think about it for a minute -- Obama's milestones have been obsessively tracked by the media, with countless stories about his "first 100 days" in office (and even quite a few on his "first 50 days"), lots of followup "second 100 days" articles, and then a truly bizarre paroxysm of stories on the anniversary of his election night. But as we approach the real milestone, tomorrow at noon (East Coast time), any "first year" stories are likely to be buried beneath microscopic analysis of whatever happens tonight in the Bay State. This is a stunning turnaround from not just a year ago, but from a few months ago. And, as I said, it is significant, because many are now left wondering: how did we get here? How did Obama get to the point he occupies now, from where he was a year ago?
Good question. The answer, in my humble opinion, is that the infamous presidential "bubble" has, sadly, descended over Obama's White House. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, probably had the most impenetrable presidential bubble of modern times (although a good argument can be made for his father, as well), but this is a danger virtually every president faces. Fresh new presidents enter office, convinced that they will be able to keep in touch with "The People," only to soon discover that safety and security (and the Washington "who gets invited to what party" culture) slowly smothers these "common man" ambitions. President Bill Clinton famously drove the Secret Service crazy by not only jogging, but stopping off at any handy McDonald's along the way. But even that faded, over time.
Obama, like many other presidents before him, entered office determined to keep in touch with average Americans. He announced, very early on in his term, that he would be attempting an insanely optimistic schedule of holding a town hall type event once a week. He would get out and talk to average people -- without the ideological screenings that marked Bush's presidential events -- once every week, to stay in touch with the mood of America.
Needless to say, this lofty goal didn't last long. It died an unheralded death right about the time the summer congressional town hall audiences became so unruly, and has never been spoken of since.
A second attempt at "keeping the common touch" was more successful, and still (to the best of my knowledge) continues to this day: Obama instructed his staff to bring to him ten representative letters from average people, each and every day, so he could read some of the stories people felt compelled to tell their president. Obama referred to these often during the whole healthcare debate, and one sincerely hopes that those ten letters still land on Obama's desk every morning.
But, at this point, the question arises which letters seem to be getting through. Because such letters are screened by Obama's staff, one has to wonder if, by now, letters which express disappointment and frustration with Obama simply aren't getting through. Because, watching the White House of late, it seems the Obama bubble is getting stronger and harder to penetrate by such average American voices.
My main evidence for making such a sweeping statement is the White House's recent surprise and astonishment. I heard rumors of this about a month ago, and the more whispers I hear, the more I'm coming to believe it is true. The White House is surprised and astonished that Barack Obama is seen as Wall Street's best buddy, and is also seen as having done nothing for (or even sold out) Main Street. While, on the face of it, this is astonishing, since he was elected as the champion of the Little Guy against all the various Big Things Crushing The Little Guy; it is striking how a completely opposite narrative has taken hold. But what astonishes me is not that the White House is now seeing this, but that the White House is only seeing this now. You can measure the thickness of the bubble's walls by how long it took this message to penetrate it.
Because this image actually took root in the public's psyche about the same time Obama stopped trying to schedule town halls, and about the same time he stopped giving regular once-a-month press conferences -- say, the beginning of the summer. But it took until December for the White House to notice.
That is indeed worrisome. Because it is the measure of how Obama has drifted into the backwaters known as "The Great Dismal Out-Of-Touch Swamp."
Obama has been showing some signs, very recently, of realizing this, and making an attempt to turn it around. His language has gotten a lot more populist recently, in other words. This is a good sign. But at this point, people want to see his actions match his words -- because his words, no matter how well spoken, are simply not enough any more.
Obama put together an incredibly diverse coalition to win the presidency. You simply cannot speak of "the average Obama voter," because that label encompasses so many different groups. Progressives, Liberals, Democrats, new voters, the disaffected, the disillusioned, moderates, Independents, the young, the old, and even some Obama Republicans were all part of his electoral victory. Grouping these broadly for the sake of conversation, there was: The Left (Progressives and Liberals who saw Obama as more of a lefty than he actually ever was); The Party Base (happy that it was a Democratic year, but who would have been just as happy with Hillary as the standard-bearer); The Hopeful (people who hadn't really participated in politics much, before Obama); and The Independents (who really wanted to believe Obama could "change the way Washington works," even though that meant different things to different people).
To differing degrees, and at different rates, the support from these groups is falling away. Many members of each of these groups have decided, at some point or another, that Obama talked an awfully good game in the election, but has since failed to follow through -- or even abandoned his position entirely. They feel cheated, and they feel used. And they do not feel inclined to give the benefit of the doubt any more.
The biggest disappointment is probably felt among The Left. When Obama came into office, he immediately did some things which raised hopes, but also did some things which caused a lot of Lefty concern as well. Since that early flurry of presidential directives and early congressional victories, however, it has seemed like The Left is the one continually getting thrown under the proverbial bus by Obama's White House. The Left sees Obama, time and time again, refusing to stand up and fight for their issues. Instead, they see Obama, time and time again, turn and pick a fight with The Left itself.
This probably would have been acceptable, since political sausage-making always involves a lot of give and take -- if only Obama had stood fast on a few issues dear to The Left, while battling them on others. If The Left had seen such a balance -- between the compromises made on one major issue, with a firm refusal to compromise on another -- then they would likely be more willing to cut Obama a little slack at this point than they are.
Instead, The Left watched as the healthcare reform debate was absolutely dominated by the "centrists" (more correctly: "corporate whores") in the Democratic Party. Obama, aside from giving one major speech on the issue, was largely silent throughout, preferring to work through his minions to influence the debate on Capitol Hill.
The only problem is, Obama's minions are even more hostile to Progressive positions than Obama appears to be. Rahm Emanuel, in particular, has enraged many on The Left, both by his willingness to throw the Progressive baby out with the legislative bathwater, as well as his apparent willingness to state in interviews exactly how he feels about The Left (basically, that they can safely be ignored, because, after all, who else are they going to vote for?).
That conventional inside-the-Beltway political logic only goes so far, however. While approval numbers for Obama are still extremely strong among self-identified Democrats (80 percent approval and up), these Party Base folks aren't always as indicative as is usually thought. Because the people who walked miles for Obama, the people who knocked on thousands of doors, the people who volunteered their time and money -- in other words, the people who got Obama elected -- these are the people who feel most betrayed right now by Obama. And without them, you get what is happening in Massachusetts right now. Democratic apathy. Multiplied by the fact that the Democratic candidate followed the Hillary Clinton campaign model: declare yourself inevitable, clap your hands, and wishing will make it so... obviating the need for all that messy campaigning.
The stunning thing, once again, is that the White House is stunned by this turn of events. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, perhaps putting a wee bit of spin on things, nevertheless was quoted today saying Obama is "both surprised and frustrated" by the Massachusetts Senate race.
That, right there, is the bubble at work.
Welcome to the club, Mister President. There are a lot of people out here who have been surprised (not in a good way) and frustrated by your performance in the past few months. No matter who wins tonight, we would all appreciate it if you tapped into some of that surprise and frustration.
Because it is out here, in bucketfuls. All you have to do is reach outside the bubble a tiny little bit, and you will get an earful of it.
The biggest problem with inside-the-Beltway thinking is that everyone believes their own P.R. Very serious pundits all agree that "the mood of the country is X" or that "this is what people out there are saying," but these very serious statements bear little in relation to reality most of the time. The problem is, these same very serious pundits are as far as most politicians look to see what "The People" are thinking. They discount what their actual constituents are saying, and believe that warm, gooey spin from the chattering class instead. At their peril, it should be noted.
I saw one very interesting interview a few weeks back (don't remember where I saw this, so I can't give credit, sorry) where a political operative -- a nuts-and-bolts type of guy who digs for data -- said something so brilliant and astonishingly simple it has remained with me ever since. He said every politician in Washington should essentially employ someone whose sole job would be to get out of Washington every week. Travel the country (among their constituency) and just stop by, at random, any coffeehouse, diner, bar, or bowling alley. Sit down and listen. Say "I work in Washington for politicians, and they want to know what you have to say." And then sit there and listen. Go to P.T.A. meetings or the local mall, and talk to a few folks. Pick people at random off the street, even.
This is exactly what about 99 percent of Washington politicians desperately need. A conduit for what "people really are thinking and saying out there" -- directly into the office of the politician. And there's no reason why it shouldn't extend right up to the president himself.
The White House should, in my humble opinion, immediately hire someone in their political office or their communications office, and give them an unlimited budget for travel. They should spend eight days out of every ten randomly tossing darts at a U.S. map and then jumping on a plane and flying to the nearest airport to where the dart lands. Spend a day or two there, then repeat the process. At the end of every two-week period, fly back to D.C. and have a long meeting with President Obama himself, to tell him what the country is really feeling and saying.
This may be some utopian concept that will never happen, I realize. But whether it happens by appointing a Listening Czar or not, Obama needs to get a lot more back in touch than he appears to be now.
As I said, every president surrounds himself with people and then has to basically trust those people to give him accurate information. Increasingly, it seems that those closest to the presidential ear have been either giving him bad advice, or are so out-of-touch themselves that they don't realize what's happening outside of the Beltway. Because it is one thing for Obama to be dissatisfied with what he hears; but it is quite another for him to be surprised by it. Surprise indicates hearing something new, something you didn't realize previously.
Surprise at the Massachusetts election situation from Obama means that he has been listening to people who have been soothing him by telling him that angry Lefty voices are confined to the blogosphere, and that it's safe to ignore them because they aren't representative of the Democratic voters out there. These same voices will be telling Obama tomorrow, if the Republican wins, that "the Democratic candidate was weak," or that "she lost because she campaigned badly," or that "your voters will come back to you when the economy improves, it's all about the economy."
Well, no. Instead, it's becoming (to paraphrase the Clinton slogan): "It's all about the bubble, stupid." If you're disappointed at the political scene in Massachusetts, Mister President, that is understandable. If you, however, are surprised by it, then something is drastically wrong with your advisors, because you simply are not getting the information you desperately need to be hearing right now.
The time for Obama to honestly reach outside his bubble is now. The White House just announced that Obama's first official State Of The Union speech will be given next Wednesday. This is the week when the White House staff decides on an agenda for the upcoming year. There are some interesting signs that Obama is considering tapping into the anti-bailout, anti-Wall-Street rage out there right now. But he should also realize that he needs to toss some political red meat to his base as well.
Because 2010 may be the year of the Enthusiasm Gap. This term was coined to refer to the difference in enthusiasm between Righties and Lefties, especially concerning this year's midterm congressional elections. But it could just as easily refer to the gap between the enthusiasm Obama's core voters felt at this time last year, and how they feel now.
There is only one way to close that gap. And that is for President Obama to truly fight for something he believes in. This fighting spirit has been all but absent from the White House for many months now. Obama's biggest legislative fight this past year was for healthcare reform. He, to put it mildly, did not engage in this fight at the level he could have. Other than one nice speech in September, he largely sat on the sidelines for the entire fight. This would have been excusable if there was a bigger issue on his plate which required all his political capital to fight for, but that simply wasn't the case. This was pretty much the only fight for the last half of his first year, and Obama inexcusably sat it out.
If Obama doesn't want to be similarly surprised in early November about Democratic prospects in the elections, he needs to do two things immediately. First, he has to fight against the bubble which has descended upon the Oval Office. And second, he has to realize that the image of him fighting constantly for Wall Street, and fighting constantly against The Little Guy, is going to destroy any chances he has for a successful rest of his presidency. Obama likes to think of himself as a transformational president along the lines of F.D.R. and L.B.J. But he, so far, hasn't realized that Roosevelt and Johnson had to take an awful lot of political risks to win the battles they did. Obama needs to realize that fighting for what you believe in doesn't always lessen your political capital, it can also increase it. He needs to stop listening to the voices soothing him with "politics of the possible" pablum, and instead rededicate himself to fighting the good fight -- even if he loses fights along the way.
Or, he can comfortably sit back as the bubble descends, thickens, and hardens into such a shell that nothing gets through. He can allow the energy and enthusiasm which elected him to wither and die on the vine, as millions of people become cynical outside the Beltway, and start truly believing that the only difference between our two major political parties is that Republicans are honestly for Big Business (they'll tell you so to your face); while Democrats say they're for the little guy -- but they are just flat-out lying, because they are just as much for Wall Street and against Main Street as the Republicans.
Your choice, Mister President. You can either enjoy your bubble, or you can get back in touch with why you got elected in the first place. For all our sakes, I hope you choose the latter.
[Program Note: I realize I am "jumping the gun" by a day here, with my first-year anniversary column on the Obama presidency. Tomorrow's news from Massachusetts (no matter who wins) is likely going to overshadow this anniversary. But I invite you all to a special column tomorrow, where I turn this space over to two people I attended the Inauguration with, both of whom are students. I thought it would be most interesting to take a look back through the eyes of the upcoming generation, to see what America's youth has to say about things now. So check it out tomorrow, both on my site and at the Huffington Post.]
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