We continue to be fascinated by the interview President Obama gave to The New Republic in which he offered not only a candid assessment of today’s political landscape and the challenges for him and Republicans but also managed to articulate — in two sentences — where he went wrong in his first term and what he is doing to correct it in his second.
Here’s Obama when asked about how much he has studied second terms of past presidents:
“I always read a lot of Lincoln, and I’m reminded of his adage that, with public opinion, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish; without it, you’re not going to get very far. And spending a lot more time in terms of being in a conversation with the American people as opposed to just playing an insider game here in Washington is an example of the kinds of change in orientation that I think we’ve undergone, not just me personally, but the entire White House.”
That’s it. From the economic stimulus to the bank bailout and, especially, on health care, President Obama seemed to believe that the sheer force of his ideas would convince the American public of their rightness. It didn’t work.
While the economic stimulus package and the health care reform eventually became law, the struggles to get them passed took a huge toll on the party. They won the legislative fight and lost the message war — all of which precipitated historic gains Republicans made in the 2010 midterm elections.
If you look at what Obama has done on the two major post-election legislative fights — fiscal cliff and debt ceiling — it’s clear that he has decided that winning the PR fight is of utmost importance.
Take the debt ceiling where Obama held a hastily-scheduled — and somewhat out-of-the-blue — press conference the sole aim of which appeared to be to re-iterate the fact that he wouldn’t let the debt ceiling be used as a bargaining chip. The gambit worked as House Republicans backed off less than 48 hours later.
As we have written, the second term Obama is a more hardened pragmatist — and much more of a cynic — than the man who came to the presidency in 2009. He knows what he wants and, at least in the early days of his second term, is willing to do what it takes to get it.