It’s never easy to admit what you’ve done wrong, especially when you’re the president. But for Barack Obama, conceding some mistakes on how he communicated about the economic crisis could be part of a strategy for his re-election campaign.
Appearing at a town hall-style event before an enthusiastic crowd at the University of Maryland in College Park on Friday, Obama sought to present his argument over the high-stakes debt limit deadlock to the public. But when a young woman, who was clearly an Obama fan, asked him if he had any regrets after 2 ½ years in office, Obama allowed that he had made a misjudgment early in his presidency.
By his own estimation, he had not been blunt enough with the public about the depths of the economic crisis when he took office in 2009 and how difficult the financial recovery would be.
“I think that I could have told American people more clearly how tough this was going to be, how deep and long-lasting this recession was going to be,” Obama told the largely supportive crowd in the 1,200-seat Ritchie Coliseum.
“That’s always a balance for the president. On one hand, you have to project confidence and optimism. In the first year, people were not sure if the banking system was melting down, if we were going into another Great Depression, and it was important for me to let the American people know, ‘It’s all right, we’ll get through this.’”
But perhaps, Obama continued, he oversold the optimism that his campaign used as a key pillar of its upbeat “hope” and “change” themes.
“On the other hand, I think people expected us to be able to solve it in the first year,” the president said. “We knew when I took office that it was going to take a while because historically, problems that are fiscal crises usually last longer than the usual business downturn cycle.”
Obama seemed to be sending a message that could help blunt criticisms about the unemployment rate from his Republican rivals at a time when the economy continues to drag: We’ve known all along that the economic crisis would take a long time to fix and so we’re not behind schedule, Obama seemed to be saying.
Obama also said he could have been more aggressive in pushing Senate Republicans to embrace stronger legislative efforts to boost the economy. But mostly he gently chided himself for failing to explain his efforts to stimulate the economy.
“Over the first two years, I was so focused on policy, getting the policy right, that sometimes I forgot part of my job is to explain to people why we’re doing this policy and where we’re going,” the president said. “I think a lot of people were trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together.”
Still, Obama didn’t heap all the criticism on himself. Far from it. He eagerly expounded on the audience’s willingness to bash Republicans for their intransigence on the debt crisis negotiations. Obama obliquely compared himself to Abraham Lincoln, who Obama said was willing to compromise on the Emancipation Proclamation (which didn’t free all the slaves, Obama noted) to preserve the country.
“If Abe Lincoln could make some compromises as part of governance, then surely we can make some compromises when it comes to handling our budget,” he said.
By the end of his hour-long appearance, it was not clear that Obama had learned his lesson about being too optimistic in tough times. As he closed his remarks, he couldn’t help but fall back on the uplifting rhetoric that helped win him office.
“I just want all of you to remember: America has gone through tougher times and we have always come through. We have always emerged on the other side stronger, more unified. The trajectory of America has been to become more inclusive, more generous, more tolerant. And so I want all of you to recognize that when I look out at each and everyone of you, you give me incredible hope. You inspire me. I am absolutely convinced that your generation will solve these problems. I never want you to get discouraged. We will get through these tough times, we will get stronger ... thanks to you.”
Then he walked into the crowd to shake hands as a recording of Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America” boomed over the public address system:
Only in America
Dreaming in red, white and blue
Only in America
Where we dream as big as we want to
We all get a chance
Everybody gets to dance