The Obama conundrum

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010; 11:44 AM

For more than a year and a half, pundits, pontificators and soothsayers have been trying to figure out why Barack Obama hasn't been a more effective president.

He hasn't developed a narrative. He hasn't been emotional enough. He deferred too much to Congress. He picked the wrong issues. He's overexposed. He's too passive, too cerebral. He inherited a disaster. You've heard it all.

Obviously, Obama would be riding higher with a 7 percent unemployment rate than the one just below double digits. But it's also clear that, for whatever combination of reasons, the Nobel Prize winner has had trouble connecting with much of the public. Whatever the issue -- the oil spill, the mosque, AIG bonuses, health care -- he often seems a step behind. The right never gave him much of a chance, while the left, professional and otherwise, seems increasingly frustrated with him.

Along comes John Judis with a theory that's occasionally been bandied about: Obama has passed up the chance to be populist, allowing his enemies to paint him as the king of bailouts. By bringing in Tim Geithner, by moderating his rhetoric about Wall Street, by blowing hot one week and cool the next, Judis argues in the New Republic (not online yet), the president has lost the political initiative. A White House group calling itself the "pitchfork gang" tried but failed to push the boss in a more populist direction.

The result, says Judis, is that, like Jimmy Carter, Obama has ended up looking weak -- even as he has pushed through health care, stimulus spending and financial reform. Obama, says Judis, "has a strange aversion to confrontational politics," strange because he was schooled as a community organizer.

The "efforts to elevate Obama above the hurly-burly of Washington politics have been disastrous. Obama's image as an iconic outsider has become the screen on which Fox News, the Tea Party, radical-right bloggers, and assorted politicians have projected the image of him as a foreigner, an Islamic radical, and a socialist. He has remained 'the other' that he aspired to be during the campaign, but he and his advisers no longer control how that otherness is defined."

Now one could argue that Obama's approach is admirable, that he has resisted the urge to create scapegoats, that there is a thin line between populism and demagoguery. Obama could have led a crusade against fat-cat bankers and destroyed business confidence. He could have piled on against the mosque near Ground Zero and encouraged religious intolerance.

But a president's essential job is to build support for his policies, and in today's bruising warfare, staying above the fray doesn't quite work.

A NYT column by Matt Bai offers an alternative explanation:

"Democrats in Washington are divided and somewhat puzzled over President Obama's fading popularity. They reject, of course, the Republican view that the president is basically a closet Socialist whose disdain for free enterprise has alienated voters. But that's about as far as the consensus goes.

"In conversations over the past few weeks, some of the party's leading strategists told me that it all comes down to messaging, or -- here's that ubiquitous word again -- 'framing.' The president who ran such a brilliant campaign, they argue, has utterly failed to communicate his successes. They cited factors like the president's cool demeanor and suggested that he hadn't used the right words or shown the proper empathy."

John Podesta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff, believes that Obama's "most consequential decisions on domestic policy stemmed from one overarching conviction -- that the president's most important job in a crisis, requiring nearly single-minded attention, was to pass huge legislation.

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