MICHAEL GERSON

Why all the blunders?

President Obama pauses during his statement on the tax-cut bill Monday.
President Obama pauses during his statement on the tax-cut bill Monday. (Evan Vucci)

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MICHAEL GERSON
Friday, December 17, 2010

The tax deal is reasonable policy, supported by majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents - an easy sell by presidential standards. And still President Obama managed to blow the politics of the thing.

Rather than explaining the economic benefits of the bill and taking quiet credit for a moment of bipartisanship, Obama launched into an assault on partners and opponents. Republicans are "hostage-takers" who worship the "Holy Grail" of trickle-down economics. Liberal opponents are "sanctimonious," preferring their own purity to the interests of the poor. The president did not just attack the policy positions of nearly everyone in the political class. He publicly questioned their motives.

It is difficult to imagine the president's advisers sitting in the Oval Office and urging this approach: "Mr. President, the best course here would be to savage likely supporters of the bill and to embitter your political base. This will show just how principled you are, in contrast to the corruption and fanaticism all around you." There can be little doubt this communications strategy was Obama's own.

It is the president's favorite rhetorical pose: the hectorer in chief. He is alternately defiant, defensive, exasperated, resentful, harsh, scolding, prickly. He is both the smartest kid in class and the schoolyard bully.

There are many problems with this mode of presidential communication, but mainly its supreme self-regard. The tax deal, in Obama's presentation, was not about the economy or the country. It was about him. It was about the absurd concessions he was forced to make, the absurd opposition he was forced to endure, the universally insufficient deference to his wisdom.

The administration further complicated its communications task by presenting Obama as ideologically superior to his own agreement. The upper-income tax rates and the estate tax provisions, in David Axelrod's description, are "odious." As a rule, staffers should not use such a word to describe policies a president has agreed to accept. It makes a president look compromised and weak. Instead of a leader brokering a popular agreement, Obama appears to be a politician forced under threat to violate his deepest convictions.

At this point in the Obama presidency, even Democrats must be asking: Is he really this bad at politics? The list of miscalculations grows longer. To pass the stimulus package, the administration predicts 8 percent unemployment - a prediction that became an indictment. It pledges the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison - without a realistic plan to do so. It sends the president to secure the Chicago Olympics - and comes away empty-handed. It announces a "summer of recovery" - which becomes a source of ridicule. It unveils a Manhattan trial for Khalid Sheik Mohammed - which nearly every New York official promptly turns against. Press secretary Robert Gibbs picks fights with both conservative talk radio hosts and the "professional left" - which uniformly backfire. The president seems to endorse the Ground Zero mosque - before retreating 24 hours later. He suggests that Republicans are "enemies" of Latinos - apparently unable to distinguish between hardball and trash talk.

In some areas - such as education reform or the tax deal - Obama's governing practice is better than his political skills. But these skills matter precisely because political capital is limited. The early pursuit of ambitious health-care reform was a political mistake, as former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel internally argued. But every president has the right to spend his popularity on what he regards as matters of principle. Political risks, taken out of conviction with open eyes, are an admirable element of leadership.

Yet political errors made out of pique or poor planning undermine the possibility of achievement. Rather than being spent, popularity is squandered - something the Obama administration has often done.

Why so many unforced mistakes? The ineffectiveness of Obama's political and communications staff may be part of the problem - and the administration is now hinting at significant White House personnel changes in the new year. But an alternative explanation was on display this week. Perhaps Democrats did not elect another Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy but another Woodrow Wilson - a politician sabotaged by his sense of superiority.

In the tax debate, Obama has proved a quarrelsome ally and a dismissive foe, generally dismayed by the grubby realities of politics. He doesn't suffer fools gladly. Unfortunately, he seems to put just about everyone who disagrees with him in that category.


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