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Obama’s communications gap

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A prominent Bush administration official was talking privately about Barack Obama last week: He’s probably going to win in 2012, this Republican said. He deserves credit for “going big” in the budget talks and capturing the center of the debate. But why isn’t he projecting his goals and philosophy more clearly to the country? Why does he so often seem to react rather than lead?

Given Obama’s strengths, this Republican observer continued, his White House advisers should already be thinking about what Obama can achieve in a second term. They should begin drafting plans and policies, but even more, they should be communicating the president’s vision. Instead, every day at this White House seems like “The Perils of Pauline,” with one cliffhanger after another.

Obama’s news conference Friday was a snapshot of a president with the right instincts but unable to close a deal. If congressional Republicans offer him “a serious plan” on the deficit, he said, “I’m ready to move.” That sounded custodial, rather than presidential.

The debt-limit crisis is a scary example of this tendency to follow, rather than lead. Through 2010, the Obama White House kept its distance from deficit-reduction proposals, and, when it finally entered the fray, it was in the person of Vice President Biden. One official told me bluntly last year that floating proposals too early was a loser, politically.

So Obama waited. His policy ideas, now that they’re public, look pretty solid. But rather than uniting the country behind a vision for reforming entitlements and taxes, he looks like a man being dragged into church by a firebrand preacher named Eric Cantor. The Republicans look bad, but so does Obama.

This communications gap is apparent in foreign policy, too. Obama may have a vision for why American troops should remain in Afghanistan until 2014, but he doesn’t convey it forcefully. This is his war, but he embraces it reluctantly and without clear definition. He places equal emphasis on withdrawing troops and staying the course, which confuses people.

The same is true for the Arab Spring. Obama has had it about right, in policy terms. U.S. strategy is a sensible mix of pragmatism and principle. America supports the movements for democratic change in the autocratic republics, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria. It respects the more conservative traditions of the pro-Western monarchies and sheikdoms, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Kuwait. This distinction isn’t complicated, it just needs to be explained.

The administration’s caution on Syria makes sense, too. The goal is a transition to a new, democratic Syria without a sectarian war that would be worse than Iraq’s. The administration raised the pressure by sending Ambassador Robert Ford to Hama, scene of the horrific 1982 massacre. The message: This time, the world is watching.

Arguments that Ford should be recalled, or that Obama should throw some fiery rhetoric at the Syrian dynamite keg, strike me as very wrong. That said, Obama needs to explain his vision of democratic transition and work with the Syrian opposition to achieve it, peacefully.

The world looks to America in times like this. Governments and business leaders want a basic framework so they can make decisions. What they get from the Obama White House, too often, is silence.

“Just tell us what you want,” an influential foreign visitor said last week of the Obama administration. It’s a comment you would hear in most capitals of Europe and Asia. Global leaders are accustomed, after Reagan, Clinton and the two Bushes, to U.S. presidents who have a few basic themes and repeat them, several times a week. From this White House they get a big speech every six months.

I had a chance last week to watch two world-class communicators, television megastar Oprah Winfrey and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. It’s hard to think of two more different people, but they share a common ability to connect with an audience. Their comments at an Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, were off the record. But both express an up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy and an optimism about America that’s infectious.

Christie is an especially intriguing figure. He’s the anti-Obama: overweight and seemingly unworried about it, where the president is lean and fastidious; disarmingly frank, where Obama is cautious. Christie is a favorite of Tea Party Republicans, but I heard enthusiastic comments about him from a half-dozen Democrats. Christie will be a formidable candidate if he runs for president one day.

The Obama White House is blessed, if that’s the right word, in having such an irresponsible Republican opposition in Congress. As the debt-limit day of reckoning approaches, the GOP will pay for its reckless, roundhouse swings. But the president needs to start acting like a fighter and a leader, rather than a punching bag.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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