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Obama's 'North Star' Not Enough by Itself

12/08/2010 03:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The most presidential phrase President Obama dropped during his "tax deal" press conference yesterday was the sonorous "North Star" line:

My job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there. What is helping the American people live out their lives? What is giving them more opportunity? What is growing the economy? What is making us more competitive?

Seems like a good idea at first glance -- Obama's North Star is good old-fashioned economic pragmatism. But there is a very big political error in the economic pragmatists vision of politics: the assumption that any improvement in the economy will de facto translate into political gain for the leaders who passed the policies.

In reality, political gains are earned by building and establishing a broad narrative that explains how, why and to what end the economy has improved -- and then winning the battle every day to keep that narrative foremost in voters' minds.

Unfortunately, what lurks behind Obama's North Star rhetoric is his apparent conviction that only economic improvement, not political battles, are important for gaining back political ground for the Democratic Party.

It's only the economy, so forget everything else... stupid.

Standing behind Obama's economic pragmatism is the consensus found in most intro-level college political science courses: A bad economy hurts the incumbent part, a thriving economy helps it. Or at least that's what the lab-coat science says.

It's reasonable science. But outside of the lab, economic benefit resulting from government policies -- even those that result in direct improvement of people's lives -- do not necessarily translate into political gains. Just look around -- huge blocks of American voters have been voting against their political self-interest for decades, if not longer.

In order for economic improvement to produce political gain, the party in power must build a narrative that leads voters to reward them. Then, once the story is built, the party in power must hammer it home over and over again.

Tax break for the middle class? Great. Tell the public how this benefit helps them as individuals, how it helps their communities, how it helps the country, and why the Democratic Party fought hard to pass it. Tell them -- then tell them again over and over every single day.

Unemployment-insurance extension? Fantastic. Tell the public how this extension helps them as individuals, how it helps their communities, how it helps the country, and why the Democratic Party fought hard to pass it. Tell them -- then tell them again over and over every single day.

The widening gap of frustration between Democrats in Congress and the White House is largely the product of the White House's refusal to see as necessary this absolutely essential task of defining a broad narrative about how and why the Democratic Party's economic policies benefit the country. Instead of building that narrative and driving it home every day, the White House seems to have made a decision to leave people alone to draw their own conclusions -- confident that the public will draw conclusions that benefit the Democratic Party when the time comes to pull the lever (or tick the virtual check box) in 2012.

Leaving the fruits of economic pragmatism to fend for themselves in a media-driven market dominated by the opposition -- that is problem President Obama has failed to see for having fixed his gaze too intently on his North Star.

In a generous reading, one could conclude that President Obama has simply dug himself too deep into the day-to-day legislative wrangling.

Maybe he has lost sight of the importance of gaining and holding ground in the battle to define the broad political narrative. The economy is bad, and the opposition is relentless. Maybe the president has overlooked this important task and just needs a reminder that the clock is ticking -- time to get back in the game.

But there is a second, less generous reading that Democrats must also consider.

Perhaps President Obama has become convinced that the only thing that will save the Democratic Party from ruin is the economic tweaks he makes while sitting around a table with a team of experts.

Perhaps he has become convinced that the political system runs by the grace of economic indicators alone and that national debate is mere window dressing.

Perhaps he has become convinced that American voters are mere data in a predictive model, who need not be led by voice or vision, as they are destined to act as the science says they should anyway.

If this second scenario is the case -- if the president has become so transfixed by the power of economic levers and the promises of economists that he has forgotten the crucial role of communicating to the electorate -- then the Democratic Party has no choice but to snap him back to reality.

What would such a "snap" look like?

For starters, Sen. Chuck Schumer, the man in charge of Senate Democrats' communications, should spend some political capital in an effort to bring the president on board the task of explaining and defining the national narrative. Get Obama back in the game. And if Schumer's first effort fails, he should try again. Every Democrat lucky enough to survive the last electoral onslaught should line up to bring Obama back in the game.

Next, efforts by political activists to get the president back into the fight should be supported, not tamped down. Activists will support pragmatic policy choices, but not if they are carried out with technocratic detachment. The base is an ally in this fight to define the narrative, not some renegade force to be silenced.

Lastly, the Democratic Party must not waste any time waiting for the next election to start. Every Democratic staffer in every office on Capitol Hill should have an 8 x 10 piece of paper with the words "2012 IS ALREADY HERE" posted on their cubicle. The time to start winning is right now.

A North Star is good to have, and the president was wise to remind the public of its value. But that star is useless if only one person is following it, let alone capable of explaining it.

As such, the president's most important task over the next three-to-six months is not just to have a fixed principle guide his decisions. He must also make sure that every American understands what that principle is, understands why following it benefits them and understands why the greatness of our country depends on it.

And that understanding is not just something fixed in the sky. It must be hammered home.