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What Bill Clinton could teach Obama about a shellacking

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The day after his shellacking, the bruised president offered a sober, tripartite analysis of voters' message. First, he said, voters are fed up with Washington partisanship and special-interest politics. Second, they feel insecure and uncertain, about their economic circumstances above all.

Sounds familiar so far, right? Except here's the next part, "The third thing they were saying . . . is, 'There are things we expect government to do, but we don't think government can solve all the problems. And we don't want the Democrats telling us from Washington that they know what is right about everything.' "

That last pivot is what distinguishes - you guessed it - Bill Clinton 1994 from Barack Obama 2010. It's what worries me about the response of the shellackee in chief to the election results - and, even more, the response of the soon-to-be-former House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Their instincts have tended more toward blaming the dogs for not understanding how good the food is for them, not accepting that it's time to tweak the recipe.

The president's self-diagnosis in his post-election news conference was dominated by the assessment that voters had simply failed to grasp - and that his failure lay chiefly in explaining clearly enough - why the administration took the steps it did.

"What is absolutely true is that with all that stuff coming at folks fast and furious - a recovery package, what we had to do with respect to the banks, what we had to do with respect to the auto companies - I think people started looking at all this and it felt as if government was getting much more intrusive into people's lives than they were accustomed to," Obama said. "We thought it was necessary, but I'm sympathetic to folks who looked at it and said this is looking like potential overreach."

If only the poor dears had a better grasp.

I write this from a perspective of sympathy with Obama's aims and overall support for his performance over the past two years. But Obama's dismissive analysis omits the non-emergency choices he made - primarily to press for and, in the end, muscle through the passage of health-care reform - and the ensuing discomfort of voters.

Discomfort that is entirely understandable, even to those of us who supported health-care reform.

Clinton campaigned as a different kind of Democrat for whom reinvented, and smaller, government was always part of the agenda. The health-care debate interrupted that narrative, and helped set the stage for his midterm losses, but it was set to the background music of a reinvented, smaller government.

In contrast, Obama campaigned, by his own assessment, as a "Rorschach test" Democrat: People saw in his candidacy what they chose to perceive. This deliberate ambiguity - traditional big-government liberal or post-partisan pragmatist - helped Obama finesse Democratic Party divides and attract independents during the campaign.

When he began to sketch in the ideological blanks, with cap-and-trade, health care, the auto bailout, et al., voters had no reason to distrust their own perceptions of intrusive government. The administration offered no counternarrative to suggest that this new era of big government had any limits.

As the Brookings Institution's William Galston observes in a post-election analysis, "Obama's agenda required a significant expansion of the scope, power, and cost of the federal government" at a time of record-low trust in government. Despite the risk that this mistrust would limit public "tolerance for bold initiatives, he refused to trim his sails, in effect assuming that his personal credibility would outweigh the public's doubts about the competence and integrity of the government he led."

There are reasons to hope that Obama can adjust and reconnect. By the time of his "60 Minutes" interview, he sounded more accepting of the notion that he needed not only to communicate better but also to govern more modestly. "The American people don't want to see some massive expansion of government," he said.

I have less confidence in Pelosi's adaptability. "No regrets," Pelosi told ABC's Diane Sawyer. "Should we have been talking about it more, and working on it less - that's a question." But, she said, "Nine-and-a-half percent unemployment is a very eclipsing event."

Hoo boy. Losing 60-plus seats is a very eclipsing event too. It would be nice to see some recognition that what we have here is not only a failure to communicate. Democrats are making a big mistake if they think their problem was as simple as not enough talking.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com


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