So the supposed Obama gaffe of the day is that he said this at the Univision town hall: “The most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside.”
Dave Weigel can’t fathom why this is supposed to be a gaffe. Steve Benen is similarly perplexed, and labels the whole thing a joke. And yet Republicans and conservatives are pouncing. Mitt Romney slammed Obama over the remarks today, arguing that he has thrown in the “white flag of surrender.” So it’s now a real story.
Okay, then. Here’s Obama’s quote:
“The fact that we haven’t been able to change the tone in Washington is disappointing. We know now that as soon as I came into office you already had meetings among some of our Republicans colleagues saying, `how do we figure out how to beat the president?’ I think that I’ve learned some lessons over the last four years. And the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside. And that’s how the big accomplishments, like health care, got done, was because we mobilized the American people to speak out...something that I’d really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people, so they can put pressure on Congress to move some of these issues forward.”
This is a gaffe? The idea seems to be that the isolated sentence shows Obama admitting failure at one of the central goals of his presidency and declaring this goal impossible. Was this an admission of failure? Well, yes, it was. You know how we know this? Because he said so right there in that first sentence: “The fact that we haven’t been able to change the tone in Washington is disappointing.”
But come on — Obama is not saying that achieving change in Washington is impossible. Obama is making a standard inside-game-outside-game argument here, one he’s made for years. He is making an argument about how meaningful change is achieved. He’s arguing that the only way to achieve it is by compelling action from elected officials — by mobilizing public pressure on them through the engagement of as many Americans as possible into the political process. If this is a gaffe, then Obama also committed a major gaffe in his convention speech, which was carefully scripted over the course of weeks. In it, Obama said precisely the same thing, citing his own achievements and claiming they were only enabled by the American people:
“The election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens — you were the change. You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can’t limit her coverage. You did that.
“You’re the reason a young man in Colorado who never thought he’d be able to afford his dream of earning a medical degree is about to get that chance. You made that possible.”
Obama today regretted that he had not achieved more cooperation from Congress and said he wished he’d had more success breaking the stranglehold of partisanship and gridlock on the political process. He said he hopes to do more in his second term to mobilize public opinion — not just to achieve more of the change he achieved that way during his first term, but also to force more fundamental change in how Congress operates. If Romney thinks the promise to engage more Americans in the political process is a gaffe, that is certainly newsworthy.
Romney has really hit the political jackpot with this one! Maybe he can organize a second whole GOP convention centered on it.