THE BLOG
11/02/2010 03:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Big Mistake

In the end, politics is a matter of focus. As Ronald Reagan said: "There is no substitute for repetition." Even Jerry Brown, who notoriously hates repeating himself, finds new ways to say the same things.

But not, at least so far and unfortunately for him, President Barack Obama.

Obama got a major economic stimulus bill passed and took other steps, but did not sustain his public focus on the economy. For nearly a year, we heard that Obama was at last about to pivot back to the economy. This said, ironically, in the midst of a slow recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

President Barack Obama, speaking at the Millennium Development Goals Summit at the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting this past September in New York, never really pivoted back to the economy after taking steps last year.

If ever "It's the economy, stupid" was a true truism, it's been since 2008 in American politics.

But precious time, energy, and capital, i.e., focus has constantly been allocated elsewhere. Not the least of it on a health care bill that took far too long to pass, allowing a firestorm to be kindled that still hasn't burned out.

Obama has pursued a wide bandwidth presidency in a narrow bandwidth, and quite shallow, media culture. But it's too easy to imagine that his problems -- and he can certainly recover and win re-election, incidentally, especially looking at that collection of Republican candidates -- is simply due to our dysfunctional and toxic media culture.

Now, I find all the things other than the economy that Obama has focused his attentions upon to be quite fascinating. Every day on my New West Notes blog, I lay out what he's doing (that we know of) along with some thoughts of what it might mean.

But whatever he's doing in geopolitics -- and Obama is certainly giving that Columbia IR degree of his a very extensive workout -- doesn't matter very much to voters. Even though most of it, with the notable exception of the Afghanistan adventure, is sensible and perhaps even visionary.

A great politician, and Obama can and should be a great politician, adapts to changing circumstances.

Just over a year ago, I took some heat when I wrote that Obama did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet.

That was a very different time, so different that Obama figured prominently in a key subplot of the annual Doctor Who Christmas special, giving a speech to announce a solution to the global economic crisis.

No one's going to be conjuring that sort of fantasy this Christmas.

The seemingly endless process around the passage of the national health care reform bill grabbed focus from the economy and left Obama scrambling in September to try to reintroduce the positive effects of the legislation.

In an historical irony, this election takes place 50 years after the election of President John F. Kennedy. And a few days after the death of Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's intellectual alter ego, counselor, and speechwriter, whom I got to know when he served as national co-chair of Senator Gary Hart's presidential campaigns.

Sorensen gave Obama a critical early endorsement, and quite evidently loved the younger man's felicitous and frequently muscular use of the English language.

But it's hard to imagine that Sorensen, much less Kennedy, would fail to adjust to changing circumstances.

With the absence of public focus from this very gifted communicator in the White House, corrosive myths have taken hold.

For one, that the massive deficits are principally the result of increased government spending. Rather than the reality, which is that they are the largely the result of the collapse in tax receipts brought on by the recession.

That's clear enough to anyone who looks at state budgets in this era. In California, for example, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has cut spending sharply, yet deficits are high. (Though a very tiny fraction of the state's massive gross domestic product.) Why? Revenues are down.

Do most voters understand this with regard to Obama's federal budget? Probably not. And in the absence of presidential focus, in the midst of a shallow, ADD media culture, phony rhetoric carries the day.

"What we've got here is, failure to communicate."

In fact, a recent Bloomberg poll shows that most voters, and Americans in general, simply don't know key framing facts about the economy.

In fact, what they think they know is wrong.

Two-thirds of likely voters believe that the U.S. economy has contracted, that taxes have gone up, and the money lent to the banks in the controversial Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) can never been recovered.

In reality, the U.S. economy, after nearly falling off a cliff to the bottom of a very deep pit at the tail end of the Bush/Cheney Administration, has been growing for the last four quarters in a row.

But only 33% of likely voters know that. A whopping 61% think that the economy has shrunk.

Taxes, rather than going up, have been cut for the middle class by Obama.

Obama belatedly tried to make the case that he has delivered on his campaign promises in a September speech to the Congressional Black Caucus dinner in Washington.

And banks are paying back their TARP funds.

Obama has cut taxes by $240 billion. Most of that, and it was mostly for the middle class, was in the much maligned stimulus bill.

But likely voters don't get it. In fact, 52% think that federal income taxes increased for the middle class over the past two years, with only 19% disagreeing.

Tellingly, 50% of independent voters, in many ways the key to Obama's sweeping 2008 election victory over John McCain, believe this canard.

It may be that people will never feel good about the economy until the unemployment figure comes down, sharply.

It may be that Obama should have done things very differently in terms of policy.

It may be that Obama doesn't have enough of a warm and fuzzy side, or hasn't the ability to project enough of a Clintonesque "I feel your pain" performance, to win people over.

But when you command the bully pulpit of the presidency, and your own supporters don't know the facts about what you've done on the central issue of the era, that is a very serious problem.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.