Obama has a listening problem

Published 3:34 pm Thursday, October 28, 2010

What happened to President Obama and the Democrats? Two years after their smashing triumph, voters favor Republican congressional candidates by an average of seven points, according to the website Real Clear Politics. Obama’s approval rating hovers around 45 percent and by more than two to one, Americans say the country is headed down the wrong track.

Some disillusionment was inevitable and unavoidable. But Team Obama also made a classic mistake. They decided that the rules of politics did not apply to them, that the popularity of their campaign slogans would somehow insulate them from the realities of Washington.

In a revealing portrait of Obama in The New York Times Magazine, Peter Baker quotes a White House official: “It’s not that we believed our own press or press releases, but there was definitely a sense at the beginning that we could really change Washington. ‘Arrogance’ isn’t the right word, but we were overconfident.”

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Arrogance probably is the right word. Obama ran hard against Washington, against the insiders and interest groups and influence traders, against capital careerists like John McCain and Hillary Clinton. Then, once elected, he tried to tell voters that Washington was actually the answer to practically every issue: rising job losses, insurance premiums and global temperatures.

At its core, the message was contradictory. How can Washington be the problem — and the solution — at the same time?

To be fair, some of Obama’s troubles are not his fault. Almost all presidents lose ground on Capitol Hill in their first off-year election. And the ideological wings of both parties are always frustrated by the demands of legislative compromise. Conservatives excoriated George H.W. Bush for striking a budget deal with Democrats that raised taxes; liberals denounce Obama for not reforming immigration or repealing the ban on gays in the military.

Team Obama also faced an economic collapse that sharply exceeded their expectations. “We just happened to be here when the music was stopping,” former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told Baker.

But the White House committed two mistakes that made matters worse, and the first was in the area of communication. The man who swept into office on a wave of exhilarating words turned out to be more effective at inspiration than explanation. “They’re much better at the art of campaigning than the art of governing,” says Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan’s last chief of staff.

Take TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which is universally described as a wasteful $700 billion “bailout” of big banks and auto companies propounded by spend-happy Democrats. How many voters know that the bill passed the Senate with 34 Republican backers and was signed by President Bush a month before Obama’s election? How many know that it actually worked pretty well, and that much of the money is now being repaid to the Treasury?

The same is true for the $787 billion stimulus package. Most economists agree it did save and create jobs, and that the unemployment rate would have been worse without it. But in the public mind, it remains a colossal failure.

In his interview with Baker, Obama admits that he never explained these initiatives very well. The result, he says, is that they “reinforced the narrative that the Republicans wanted to promote anyway, which was Obama is not a different kind of Democrat — he’s the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat.”

But the TARP and stimulus bills were wars of necessity, essential measures aimed at salvaging a staggering economy. Obama’s domestic war of choice — and his single biggest mistake — was pushing ahead with a massive healthcare bill. That’s where the arrogance comes in. The polls at the time were crystal clear: Most Americans already had health insurance and liked their coverage. They were in no mood to swallow a massive initiative that would upset that system and substitute government dictates for private decisions. Worse, Obama’s focus on health insurance distracted him from their real concern: jobs.

Indirectly, Obama seems to tell Baker that he understands his error: “I think anybody who’s occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection of policy and politics and that you can’t be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.”

No president should simply read polls and follow them blindly. At times, good leaders have to tell their supporters what they don’t want to hear. But if the president has to get better at “marketing” and communicating, he also has to get better at listening. He’s re-election may well depend on it.

(Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.)