Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo is often quoted as saying, "You campaign with poetry, but you govern with prose." It was a line that Hillary Clinton used against Barack Obama during her presidential campaign, and now, we seem to be reminded of it nearly every day. Obama's people were great at campaigning but just can't seem to figure out that whole governance thing. There are swirling attacks on the Obama Administration from all sides, including by their own friends: "Rahm Emanuel is too profane." "David Axelrod has forgotten how to communicate." "President Obama has morphed into Jimmy Carter." In his Sunday NY Times column, Frank Rich called the upcoming vote on health care an up-or-down vote on the Obama presidency. I doubt it.
So here's my take on it: Running the United States is a really hard job and it takes a while to learn how to do it.
This has been true for a long time, but you have to go back to FDR and Abraham Lincoln to find a level of fundamental threat to our national well-being comparable to the one we face today. The national economy, global economic competition, China, Iran, the environment, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, world poverty, crumbling infrastructure; and did I mention terrorism? Perhaps we ought to cut these folks a little slack. Undoubtedly some will say that the White House is no place for on-the-job training. Unfortunately, it has to be. What other job prepares you for the White House? While running, say, New York City is difficult and complex, the New York City Council is not the U.S. Senate, and no neighborhood around here has ever been as ungovernable as the Middle East. Think of the John Kennedy we saw in April 1961 during the Bay of Pigs invasion and compare him to the leader we saw in the 13 days of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. Talk about on the job training. Obama and his team are loaded with talent, but the job they have taken on is beyond difficult; they did not create the multiple crises we now face, but they are actually trying to do something about them.
It is very fashionable to play Monday morning quarterback on the strategy for health care. There is no question that the message has been confused and the legislative process has looked more than ever like sausage making. This is clearly a case of interest group politics run amok. As anyone who has taken the time to study the health care proposal knows, it is a deeply flawed compromise. But those flaws are not fatal, and I have to believe that the Democrats have so much on the line that they will manage to complete the process and get the bill passed. The president has sent out a clear message that he wants an up-or-down vote on the bill and has successfully countered the Republican effort to delegitimize the congressional reconciliation process.
I think that the bill will pass because the wavering Democrats fear one thing more than being attacked on a new health care law: the prospect that the debate will continue into the fall. Democrats, the President included, want desperately to turn the page. Immigration, climate and energy and, most critically, the economy need to be addressed. For the Democrats to hold their own in November, people will have to believe that the Great Recession is really over and that the President and the Democrats deserve some credit for getting us through treacherous economic waters.
Obama and his team will need to focus on a single message of economic revival this coming fall. They will need to learn how to convey that message through the confusing cacophony of the 24-7 global web-based news cycle. If there is one lesson I think the White House must master it is, ironically, how to use the presidency to effectively dominate the new media news cycle. The American Presidency has more resources to accomplish this feat than any other institution in the world, but the global media is a moving target and is difficult to steer. It's not clear if this is actually an achievable goal, but if anyone can do it, it's President Obama.
Heading toward November 2010 and then 2012, President Obama must define and occupy the political center. He must portray his opponents as out of touch extremists. In the end, all of American politics is about defining and occupying the political center. Our political structure reinforces our centrist tendencies. A strongly ideological party could win 20% of the votes in every congressional district in the country and still send no one to Congress. Third parties in presidential politics are discouraged by the math of the Electoral College. This is not a right or left wing country but a nation of pragmatic moderates.
President Obama shows every sign that he possesses this understanding and my guess is that, as he turns his attention from the prose of governing to the rhetoric of midterm elections, we will soon hear more of the campaign poetry we heard back in 2008. Barack Obama has been underestimated before, the perils of which his opponents seem to be more aware of than his friends.
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