washingtonpost.com
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.

" 'By focusing on getting big legislative accomplishments, which was understandable, they necessarily gave up a larger image of him as president,' Mr. Podesta said, referring to White House advisers. 'They cast him as the prime minister. They were kind of locked into the day-to-day workings on the Hill.' "

Fascinating. Isn't that the yardstick we generally use for presidents on domestic policy? Clinton, faced with a Republican Congress, spent time on V-chips and school uniforms and was criticized for small ball -- but it helped sustain his popularity when the scandals hit.

At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey blames it all on presidential arrogance:

"By attempting to once again lecture people on how wrong most of us are on either side of an issue, Obama has exposed himself once again as a person who doesn't engage well with the American people he seeks to lead.

"This goes far beyond the Ground Zero mosque. The same clueless, tone-deaf disconnect at the White House led to the 'Recovery Summer' PR campaign, in which Obama and Joe Biden have lectured us about how great things are while all of the evidence points to a significant decline in the economy. While the country demanded a change of economic policy to encourage real growth, the White House and Congress instead insisted on spending nine months to give birth to ObamaCare, a bill so unpopular that six out of ten voters want it repealed. While joblessness continues to deepen, Obama and the Democrats are taking money out of food stamps to fund a bill that will tell taxpayers how to eat."

Exit strategy

It was either a huge story or none at all, an important milestone or an incremental shift of a few troops. NBC's Richard Engel was embedded with the troops as MSNBC went wall-to-wall; CNN was live for a while; the Fox opinion shows barely mentioned it.

New York Times: "As the United States military prepares to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, the Obama administration is planning a remarkable civilian effort, buttressed by a small army of contractors, to fill the void.

"By October 2011, the State Department will assume responsibility for training the Iraqi police, a task that will largely be carried out by contractors. With no American soldiers to defuse sectarian tensions in northern Iraq, it will be up to American diplomats in two new $100 million outposts to head off potential confrontations between the Iraqi Army and Kurdish pesh merga forces."

Washington Post: "There might never be an acknowledged end to the Iraq war -- a moment where it ceases being America's conflict. U.S. commanders acknowledge that the months-long political impasse over the disputed March 7 election and a flurry of other unresolved disputes in Iraq have the potential to erode hard-won security gains.

"But U.S. commanders also seem to be stressing that this is no longer America's war to lose."

More on the mosque

Jonah Goldberg wonders how we got here on the Islamic Center uproar:

"The Ground Zero mosque controversy is one of the stupidest debates of our time. I don't mean the substance of the debate (though there's no shortage of stupidity on that front either). I mean that we are having it at all. . . .

"It's as if they've wanted to turn a dumb idea into an emotional and unwinnable national controversy.

"Let's start with the incandescent idiocy of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. If Bloomberg had a scintilla of foresight, he would have prevented anyone from ever hearing the words 'Ground Zero' and 'mosque' in the same sentence. . . .

"The notion that Bloomberg couldn't have quietly stopped this in New York is like saying Satan is powerless to do anything about the heat in Hades. He could have kept the molehill from becoming a mountain with an afternoon's worth of phone calls. The center would be built, just not so close to Ground Zero; no big deal."

Meanwhile, "nearly one in five people, or 18 percent, said they think Obama is Muslim, up from the 11 percent who said so in March 2009, according to a poll released Thursday. The proportion who correctly say he is a Christian is down to just 34 percent.

"The largest share of people, 43 percent, said they don't know his religion, an increase from the 34 percent who said that in early 2009."

Don't we usually learn more about our presidents the longer they're in office?

Dr. Laura denouement

Laura Schlessinger has abdicated her radio throne on Larry King, adding to the N-word flap with some comments that utterly miss the point. "I want to regain my First Amendment rights," she said. "I want to be able to say what's on my mind and in my heart and what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is the time to silence a voice of dissent and attack affiliates, attack sponsors. I'm sort of done with that."

Huh? Who exactly is trying to "silence" her?

Salon's Joan Walsh eviscerates her explanation:

"Like a lot of right-wingers lately (see the so-called 'ground zero mosque' demonizers), Schlessinger shows a poor grasp of what the First Amendment does. It protects us from government abridging our speech rights; it doesn't protect us from other Americans deciding we're racially divisive idiots when we use the [N-word] 11 times in a single exchange with one caller. Schlessinger can study up on our Constitution while she's taking a break from radio. . . .

"Schlessinger has gotten away with being 'helpful and useful' in all her homophobic, sexist, right-wing glory for almost three decades. It's amazing this single run-in with American decency has finally made her retreat."

At the St. Petersburg Times, Eric Deggans says Dr. Laura's diagnosis is way off:

"Schlessinger's departure may not have been voluntary -- the situation reeks of a 'quit or be fired' scenario -- but at least she was allowed to pretend the departure was her own decision.

"Now Schlessinger insists that she is the victim; that those pointing out her own prejudice are 'NAACP-ing' her. It's a disturbing glimpse into a bizarro world where racism is rationalized and those who aren't willing to tolerate her backward ideas are the ones with a problem. . . .

"This isn't the first time she's ducked criticism by ducking out. Eight years ago, when she tried to host a syndicated TV show, Schlessinger canceled an appearance at the TV Critics Association's summer press tour over controversies about her past stance on gay people -- she once called homosexuality a mistake and advocated against gay people adopting children, repeating a long-discredited stereotype that homosexuals were more likely to be child molesters."

Hillary hype

In the Financial Times (registration required), Clive Crook takes the HRC-for-veep chatter and raises the ante:

"Would Obama-Clinton be a stronger ticket? I wonder. It would certainly shake things up, which Mr. Obama by then may feel he needs to do. Mrs. Clinton is popular with white working-class voters -- but then so is Mr. Biden. Would she draw independents back? Not in great numbers, I would have thought. To be sure, she projects greater competence than Mr. Biden does. But who demands competence in a vice president? (Succession due to the death or disgrace of the president is a factor, but Mr. Obama is young and squeaky clean.)

"Another problem: Mrs. Clinton might not want the job. The notion that her ambition to be president is extinguished would be somewhat hard to accept. Becoming vice president might not best serve that ambition. It is conceivable, depending on how things go, that she might run against Mr. Obama in 2012. (In 2016 she will be pushing 70.) Why rule out the option? Detaching herself from Mr. Obama would not be hard. . . .

"The worse the Democrats do, the more Mr. Obama might be tempted to draft Mrs. Clinton -- and the more tempted she might be to aim higher."

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But as Crook notes, it's August.

White House chides allies, again

Americablog's John Aravosis cites a report that White House liaison Brian Bond, in a meeting with gay-rights activists, "expressed frustration at the often intense criticism levied, particularly by bloggers, against an administration that is '99 percent supportive of your issues.' "

"It's great that you're 'supportive.' But it's the same argument gay Republicans used to describe George Bush. He was secretively supportive of us, they'd say, even if he didn't help us a whole lot legislatively. I'm not saying you're George Bush, but the empathy thing is wearing thin. We don't want your support in words, we want you to keep your promises. And you're not."

Another blogger, Pam Spaulding, is equally unhappy:

"We're not the enemy, the 'gay bloggers' have just been treated in a bizarre fashion (and sadly, at times the traditional LGBT media's apparently placed in the doghouse with us by association), it's not like we sit around thinking how to screw over the WH. On the other hand, we're not an extension of the WH PR machine. We just represent many voices, and many outside the Beltway, of course, that haven't been heard or dealt with before. Does that make it challenging to navigate these relationships? Yes, and that's on both sides."

Coulter canceled

World Net Daily drops one of the right's darlings for consorting with the wrong people:

"Conservative superstar Ann Coulter today was dropped as a keynote speaker for WND's 'Taking America Back National Conference' next month because of her plan to address an event titled 'HOMOCON' sponsored by the homosexual Republican group GOProud that promotes same-sex marriage and military service for open homosexuals.

"Joseph Farah, editor and chief executive officer of WND, said the decision was a gut-wrenching one for his team because of their fondness for Coulter as both a person and writer-speaker."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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