As he and his advisers moved to Washington, their election victory provided a parable for governing: They could be self-reliant, overcome absurd odds, ignore the media and remain above the public sniping that they ran against so successfully.Since his campaign had been built on symbolism, why not a presidency built on the same?
Obama aimed for comity, the meta-message of his campaign. He began hosting weekly cocktail parties for both Democrats and Republicans. An invite to watch a Sunday football game at the White House became a sought-after prize in Washington. If nothing else, Obama, as host, was sending a message with his method.If some political observers thought that Obama should change his approach to policy and politics, it was just because they didn't understand the wonder that is The One.
But it rarely reached beyond the symbolic. Republicans, in particular, were less charmed by the president’s get-to-know-me outreach than taken aback by his retort to Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), then the House Republican whip, during an early negotiating session over the size of the 2009 stimulus package. “I won,” Obama told him, effectively ending the discussion over the balance of tax breaks and public spending.
To veterans of the campaign, though, it was more a matter of Washington not understanding the leadership upgrade that had just taken place. “He’s playing chess in a town full of checkers players,” a senior adviser and campaign veteran told me in the first months of the administration. Obama had a “different metabolism,” the aide explained.Oh, barf! Does anyone really believe that sort of thing about any other human being? What sort of ego must a man have to surround himself with such idolatry?
“It’s not cockiness,” the adviser added, “it’s confidence.”
It's no wonder that he goes around today saying things that are patently not true about his jobs stimulus bill or about how the Bush administration was responsible for the Solyndra fiasco. Does he have anyone around him who can tell him the unvarnished truth? People thought that William Daley could do that and help bridge the divide with the business world, but there has been absolutely no evidence that that is happening. If anything, Obama has been more open about the attitudes he has towards those who have worked and built the nation's economy. It is now perfectly clear that his offhand comment to Joe the Plumber about how we have to spread the wealth around is his true belief. And he's going to campaign on that platform.
It seems that the one lesson he's absorbed from those who are advising him on his reelection campaign is that he needs to be more populist and more partisan.
With just over a year before Election Day 2012, advisers say that Obama recognizes his people problem and is working to address it. Beyond the Saturday reconnect sessions, his stump speeches advocating for his jobs plan are becoming more populist and partisan. He is outside the Beltway more, reaching out to voters. His supporters, though still worried, are starting to like what they see.So he's totally scrapped the cloak of an above-it-all leader who resides in Purple America to run as divisive a campaign as he possibly could to attack the rich and say that any Republicans who oppose him are just putting politics above the country. In Obama's version of reality, that is how it plays out. But fewer and fewer people are buying into the rapturous emotions that preceded his election. He's going to be running in a reality that is increasingly divorced from the autobiographical novel that he prefers to dwell in. Perhaps the media is still reading from the hymnal that is the Obama playbook. But I suspect that more and more discordant notes will start being heard as the hymns to The One just seem out of tune these days.
But inside the Beltway, the legacy of his relationship, or lack thereof, with Democrats on the Hill remains a problem for his jobs plan — and, by extension, his political future.
A senior Democratic strategist told my colleague Chris Cillizza recently that “the person running out of air most quickly” is Obama himself, and there may not be many who come to his rescue.
“We’re about a year out from the elections, and the senators are turning to their own races,” the strategist said. “They don’t have a lot of energy or political capital to spare for the president at this point.”
Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg is puzzled by the Wilson piece in its portrayal of Obama as a policy wonk who loves discussing the intricacies of policy rather than participating in the grind of politics. You know - it's the old "I love mankind; it's people I can't stand" approach to policy. But Goldberg wonders about the depiction of Obama as some sort of policy wonk.
Where’s the proof that Obama is a master of public policy? To be sure there’s ample proof that he’s a master at talking about public policy, describing the problems, summarizing the current thinking, regurgitating all of the reigning clichés and platitudes. But where’s the evidence that he’s actually good at public policy?Perhaps he was just playing checkers after all.
It’s a sincere question: What have been the truly innovative, groundbreaking or even unconventional big public policy ideas to come out of this administration? Are there any? Because from where I sit, it simply looks like Obama takes existing, conventional, liberal ideas – some of them very, very old – off the liberal pantry shelf and hawks them like it’s new inventory. Where’s the evidence that Obama’s “mastery” over public policy has translated itself into creative approaches? Not in the stimulus from what I can tell. Maybe there’s something impressive to tout in ObamaCare, but Obama didn’t actually have much to do with the crafting of ObamaCare – a fact Wilson acknowledges. Was his genius to be found in shoveling cash into Solyndra and other embarrassing white elephants? Was he the guiding intellect behind a green jobs program that has produced dozens of jobs in places where it was supposed to create thousands?
And if he’s such a genius about public policy, why did it take him so long to discover that there’s no such thing as “shovel ready jobs”? You don’t have to be a Jedi Master of public policy to have known that.
Heck, if he’s spent so much time focusing on getting the policies right, why are things so bad? Why are they so much worse than he predicted? Why did it take him so long figuring out reality was sharply veering from his assumptions?
Here’s a thought: Maybe Obama is just a big fan of public policy the way I’m a big fan of movies? I can talk about movies all day long. I can discuss camera work, acting, story, directing etc. with some fluency. I can even talk about how movies are financed and the role of foreign markets. But you know what? I don’t have a frickn’ clue how to make a Hollywood movie (and I’ve actually made some documentaries).
Maybe he’s not a public policy Scorsese. Maybe he’s, at best, the Roger Ebert of policymaking – or more likely, just a policy buff.
This also raises an interesting question: Do you even want a super-wonk to be president? As Wilson discusses in his piece, Bill Clinton was certainly a wonk and so was Jimmy Carter. But to the extent Clinton’s presidency was successful it was attributable to his political skills, not his policy genius (and to an economic boom for which he deserves significantly less credit than he claims).