President Obama continues to live in a state of denial regarding the message of the midterm elections. He stubbornly clings to the belief that his policies had nothing to do with the historic “shellacking” the voters gave his party and instead blames the red tide on his lack of communications skills. What a change from the 2008 campaign, when Mr. Obama was being heralded as the great orator of the 21st century. Apparently, the 2010 election was lost because Mr. Obama didn’t have enough teleprompters.
“I think that over the course of two years, we were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that we stopped paying attention to the fact that leadership isn’t just legislation,” Mr. Obama told Steve Kroft in a “60 Minutes” interview. “That it’s a matter of persuading people. And giving them confidence and bringing them together. And setting a tone.” The president is only now realizing that it’s not a textbook example of effective executive leadership to ram through unpopular legislation while mocking those who try to point out the negative consequences of his ill-advised actions. He did set a tone, but it was one of arrogance, condescension and recklessness.
This is quite an awakening for the most polarizing president in recent history, but he still doesn’t get it. Exit polling showed that voters had genuine objections to his legislative and policy agenda. The federal takeover of health care, unprecedented accumulation of debt, failed economic policies and massive expansion of government all weighed on voters’ minds. Those messages were coming through loud and clear.
The “communications gap” argument first turned up in January, when Mr. Obama was struggling to find a way to explain Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown’s come-from-nowhere victory, which handed liberal Ted Kennedy’s seat to the GOP. Back then, the White House claimed it hadn’t reached out enough to the American people, and it sought input from 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe in its damage-control efforts. Mr. Plouffe recently showed that the audacity of hope was alive and well when he said that signs of GOP momentum going into the midterm election “certainly don’t suggest that Republicans are on the precipice of some big electoral wave.” Mr. Plouffe is expected soon to replace White House senior adviser David Axelrod, which should be good news for Republicans.
Mr. Obama tried to connect with the American people. In the first months of his administration, he regularly took to the airwaves to tout his various big-government initiatives. Networks began to push back, however, when they discovered that Mr. Obama’s TV ratings were sagging along with his approval rating. By January 2010, a story made the rounds that the State of the Union address was scheduled so as not to conflict with the premiere of the final season of “Lost” for fear that no one would tune in to the O Force.
The problem is both the messenger and the message. The Democrats’ policies have failed to address the concerns of the American people. They have brought the country gargantuan new debt, a weakened dollar, precious few new jobs, more expensive health care and government intrusion into every area of life. Like a substance abuser, the president must first admit he has a problem with his addiction to government solutions to all of the world’s problems before he can start on the road to recovery. He will have to climb down from his ivory tower and begin working with those who have principled disagreements with his state-centered view of the universe. He no longer can flippantly banish Republicans to the back of the bus or throw dissenters under it.
The president has realized belatedly that there’s a difference between reading words from a teleprompter and actually governing the country. Put another way, the White House is admitting that for Barack Obama, the presidency is mostly on-the-job training.