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How Obama Can Win Friends and Influence People

After Republican Scott Brown’s impressive and hugely significant victory in the Massachusetts Senate race, I wrote that the one saving grace for Democrats was Republicans. Not all of them drive trucks, and those who reside in Washington tend to be just as clueless, arrogant, and separated from reality as their Democratic counterparts.

But after President Obama’s post-election interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, it’s time for me to complete the thought. If those clueless and arrogant Republicans who are separated from reality have a saving grace, it’s Obama.

It wasn’t just the obvious head-scratchers. Does the president really believe that “the same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office,” in reference to voter anger and frustration? With so many Americans so clearly saying that they want this administration to slow down its agenda, did he really head off in the other direction and say, “I wish we had gotten it done faster”? And does the country’s chief executive really think that it’s not in his job description to “navigate” how Congress goes about tackling one public policy issue or another, when that is exactly what presidents do?

What was really troubling about the interview was where it became even clearer that Obama just doesn’t get it.

Like when he tried to explain his first-year failures by blaming the culture in Washington, a place where “you have to repeat yourself a lot because unfortunately it doesn't penetrate.”

Mr. President, what we have here is not a failure to communicate. Most of the time, you come through loud and clear. Lawmakers just don’t like what you’re saying and their constituents back home like it even less.

Or when he said that his major deficiency was that he hadn’t been better at “breaking through the noise and speaking directly to the American people in a way that during the campaign you could do.”

What? As president, you can speak directly to the American people any time you want to. But you already know that because, since being sworn in, you’ve held so many televised town halls, press conferences, and major addresses to the nation that, at times, you’ve seemed ubiquitous. You’re on everything but American Idol.

And, finally, there was the moment in the interview when Obama observed: “You know, we have a political culture that has built up over time that has gotten more and more polarized.” He said that he had hoped “that the urgency of the moment would allow us to join together and make common cause.” Then he blamed the impasse on “a strategic decision that was made on the side of the opposition.”

Mr. President, that’s not exactly how you make friends and influence people. If you want to blame the polarization in Washington for not getting more done or not getting your message out, then it might be a good idea to avoid saying and doing things that only serve to make the air more polarized.

The one thing Obama got right was when he told Stephanopoulos that he didn’t believe the president or members of Congress can “simply say we're going to stand pat and avoid big problems because they're just too hard politically.”

Absolutely. We send men and women to Washington to represent us, to show leadership, and to tackle hard issues that might earn them a one-way ticket home. We don’t send them to sit on committees, to gorge on perks, and to feel important.

All the more reason that, when you have a seismic event like the recent Massachusetts election, people in both parties should be able to learn the proper lessons from it. In this case, it’s hugely significant that more than 20 percent of Scott Brown’s votes came from Democrats who voted for Obama. There might be a little buyer’s remorse there, or a concern on the part of many that the person they thought they were voting for isn’t the same person now leading the country. Or it may be that, as political strategist Dick Morris put it, the people of Massachusetts were sending a message about the importance of checks and balances. They might still support many parts of Obama’s agenda, but the idea of one-party rule (even when it’s their party) scares the daylights out of them -- and with good reason.

Whatever the lessons from the Massachusetts Senate race, and there are probably several to be drawn, they won’t do the White House any good unless the man at the top starts being honest with himself -- and the rest of us -- about what he is doing wrong and commits himself to doing better. Moving to the center and reaching out to key Republicans would be a good start.

A Buddhist proverb dictates, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Granted, it was only one interview. But from the sound of it, President Obama isn’t ready.