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FIELDS: David Plouffe needs a friend

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 27, 2010

David Plouffe is a friend of mine. Not just a Facebook friend, either, but a real friend. He writes to me, personally. "Friend," the president's chief guru wrote to me in a letter that popped into my e-mail on the eve of the president's State of the Union address, "We must regroup, refocus and re-engage on the vital work ahead."

I'm impressed as a one-time English teacher by the alliteration and repetition that thump home the e-mail's point in a pep talk. But I'm not sure what he means by "we." His message grew increasingly cliched as he talked about "the bumps in the road in our march toward change." We've made it through "challenging times." We did all that? Together?

My pen pal tells me the president's resolve has never been stronger as he fights for health insurance reform and job creation, reining in the big bad banks and squelching the influence of lobbyists. My friend David has been brought into the White House to revive the president's campaign, to recover the momentum he lost somewhere between Chicopee and Cape Cod. But just between friends, David, are we really yearning for another presidential campaign? Can't that wait for 2012?

When Barack Obama ran for president, most voters overlooked his lack of administrative skills and political experience and put their faith in his smooth and well-phrased generalizations. "Change" was the Rorschach test, where everyone could see a projection of himself, not the candidate. That's not working anymore. The president has had a full year of an era of good feelings. He concedes, in a conversation with Diane Sawyer of ABC-TV, that in that year "we've been so focused on getting things done, we stopped giving voice to the frustrations the people have with the process." He takes full responsibility for not making more speeches.

But there was nothing new in the process, and it was the substance - or lack of it - that stoked the rebellion in Massachusetts. When senators were so transparently purchased to vote for Obamacare, it wasn't so much the sausage-making that turned people off, but the sausage itself. Scott Brown seemed to come out of nowhere, but it was the energy of lots of small, determined steps and lots of righteous anger that propelled him to Washington. His election is a reminder that democracy thrives when voters think independently. Trend spotters are always slower to catch on to what's happening than the trend changers who organize around change. Scott Brown is a trend changer.

The idea that a "Kennedy seat" could be bequeathed automatically to a Democrat sounded like Massachusetts voters believe in something like the divine right of senators. A political party is not a dynasty; neither is it a family. A senator represents a variety of people with different ideas of their own about what's best for them. Divisions diminish when a strong leader, idea or a group of ideas draw them together with common sense for common cause. The tipping point usually is difficult to see from Washington.

When Deborah Converse, who runs a Kennedy museum in Hyannisport, was asked about Mr. Brown's success, she answered with bluntness typical of New England. "It wasn't about the Kennedy seat," she told the New York Times. "I think the Democrats wanted to make it that way, but it just wasn't." She voted for Martha Coakley, but she knew how independent-minded her neighbors are. On Cape Cod, majorities in 11 of the 15 towns supported Scott Brown. Coakley canvassers knew the game was over when they saw Brown yard signs sprouting on lawns next to cars in the driveway with Obama bumper stickers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, born in Boston just 22 years after the Revolution and the "first philosopher of the American spirit," would understand. Our institutions, he said, are not superior to the individual citizen: "The State must follow and not lead the character and progress of the citizen." He could have been talking about the irresponsible way in which health care legislation was jammed through Congress. Cunning can be synonymous with politics, he observed, but "the wise know that foolish legislation is a rope of sand which perishes in the twisting."

President Obama observes that when his poll numbers are low, he's perceived as "cool, cerebral, cold, detached," and when his poll numbers are high, he's "calm and reasoned." Soon the polls will tell us whether Americans found him cool and detached or calm and reasoned - and whether he can "regroup, refocus and re-engage on the vital work ahead." David Plouffe will have to show the president how to win more friends and influence more people or watch everything go poof! Or maybe just plouffe!

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.