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Obama: So Good, Yet So Bad

How can someone so politically adept at campaigning be so politically incompetent at governing?

November 4, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama (Credit: Pete Souza - White House)

President Obama recently touched off a small “October Revolution” with the appointment of Ron Klain as his “Ebola Czar.” This was a tell-tale political move as the appointment yielded three prototypical responses: It antagonized Obama’s enemies, left his supporters dithering – and, in the end, said a lot about the Administration’s political aptitude.

The reality is that political ineptitude has been a hallmark of the Obama Administration. That raises a puzzling question: How can someone so politically adept at campaigning be so politically incompetent at governing?

A good record . . .

This is all the more perplexing as, purely based on outcomes, a strong case can be made that the Obama Administration has governed effectively. After all, the U.S. economy is recovering strongly – and the United States is now assuming the lead role as the engine of global growth.

By the same token, Obama has not put U.S. combat boots on the ground anywhere in the world. Rather, he has brought over 200,000 U.S. servicemen home since his inauguration.

In addition, over eight million Americans who did not have health care insurance when President Obama was sworn in to office have it today.

And to borrow one of the more bombastic claims of the Bush years, “President Obama has kept us safe” from terrorist attacks.

Though Americans may not be entirely satisfied with the way things are going, the simple fact is that Americans are better off today than they were in January of 2009. And things seem to be getting better every day.

. . . but a political failure

So why does President Obama suffer from such dismal approval ratings? It is in large part because of the political ineptitude he has exhibited in governing.

The 44th President of the United States has consistently failed to promote compelling narratives. He has also failed to assemble effective teams of surrogates to carry his message forward.

And importantly, he has failed to provide his minions with a consistently applied political ideology as well as much-needed political cover.

Backing down on Guantanamo closure, his embrace of NSA spying, his unconstrained use of drones and his encroachments on press freedoms have left many of his most ardent supporters twisting in the wind.

As a result, today it seems as if President Obama can do nothing right. He has become America’s favorite scapegoat. But this outcome is not so much a matter of bad policy as of bad politics.

Start at the beginning

Illustrative of the bad politics that have plagued the Obama Administration was the Recovery Act of 2009. Faced with a meltdown of the U.S. and global economies, the Obama Administration crafted an effective spending package aimed at stabilizing and reviving the economy.

Congressional Conservatives, as expected, resisted the nearly $1 trillion in stimulus spending. Liberals, also as expected, complained that it was not enough.

This political reaction was entirely predictable. But instead of managing this predictability, the Obama Administration managed to get run over by it.

Obama’s economic brain trust at that time crafted a competent enough economic stimulus package. But it failed to “sell” it. His team consisted of capable economists and policymakers, but they were dismal politicians.

Then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner proved incapable of inspiring confidence. Chief Economic Advisor Larry Summers was more capable of antagonizing than building consensus. And Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Austan Goolsbee had a tendency to appear fuzzy headed in his portrayal of economic issues.

As a result, the sales job fell upon Barack Obama, who tried his best to sell it.  He failed, however, because he didn’t understand the real political challenge.  It wasn’t about policy.  It was about him.

His political opponents were determined to neuter Obama with one basic charge – that he was making good speeches – but enacting bad policies.

As with the stimulus package, a similar dynamic took effect with healthcare reform. Here, the Obama Administration once again crafted sound policy, but completely misread the political battle.

Conservatives, as expected, cast the reform package as socialism and claimed that it would destroy “the best health care system in the world.” Liberals, also as expected, carped that it didn’t go far enough and demanded a single payer alternative.

What was predictable was not managed

This political spat should have been completely manageable. But the Obama Administration failed spectacularly. It elected to make two unlikely candidates — Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the Democratic Party’s leaders in the U.S. House and Senate, respectively — the faces of health care reform in America.

Republicans were incensed that the President had selected such partisan liberals to be the faces of health care reform in America.

Such was their contempt for them that they were viewed as inside jokes by conservatives.  (Really, a conservative could merely say the words “Nancy Pelosi” to earn gales of cynical laughter.)

Once again, President Obama, finding himself without decent surrogates, resorted to making good speeches – which were predictably dismissed as, yes, good speeches.

In both cases, on the stimulus and health insurance reforms, the political right marginalized Obama as little more than a good speechmaker. In reality, Obama’s failure was that he had not established an effective political narrative.

He was leading the nation forward — without telling the nation where it was being led. And he had failed to anoint capable surrogates who could make the case on his behalf.

Though he won legislative victories because of a Democrat controlled Congress, he lost the political war. From that point forward, the Obama Administration was on the defensive. No wonder it has gotten beaten on immigration reform, gun control, climate change and just about every other major issue of the past four years.

Opportunities lost

Think about why it is so difficult for so many Americans to support immigration reform. It is in large part because the Obama Administration failed to identify any specific benefit for non-Latinos.

On gun control, it seemed like the stars were finally lining up for reform after the tragic events of Newtown, Connecticut. However, it didn’t take long for the entire debate to become muddled.

In next to no time, Conservatives — in league with the National Rifle Association — managed to force the President onto defense. That left his supporters scratching their heads over how this could possibly happen.

On climate change, too, Obama failed to recruit a team of effective and credible surrogates. At the same time, he failed to enunciate with clarity the hard facts that support his position. Instead, science itself has been called into question by voices of greed and ignorance.

No wonder they run away

Against this political record, it is no wonder that Democratic congressional candidates ran from the President ahead of the November 2014 mid-terms.This is especially surprising, considering that most candidates support his policy agenda, in whole or in significant part.

In fact, most Democrats supported the stimulus and health care reform. Most continue to support immigration reform, gun control and measures to stop climate change.

But they are also sensible enough to understand that their leader has failed to shape and deliver his message effectively. Instead, Obama has invited harsh backlash from his political opponents and has often left his most ardent supporters politically helpless and disoriented.

The attacks on Obama have been profoundly ideological. And President Obama has countered these attacks with little more than good speeches.


How can someone so politically adept at campaigning be so politically incompetent at governing?

Obama's problems are not so much a matter of bad policy as of bad politics.

Obama was leading the nation forward -- without telling the nation where it was being led.