The president had a rough week. He was beset by tax-cheating appointees, hobbled by an incompetent press secretary, frustrated by a messy legislative fight over his stimulus plan, and suddenly deprived of the aura of infallibility which gave him a larger-than-life political presence. So how does he get his mojo back?
It is early, very early, in his presidency so there is no need to panic. But there is reason to reassess. His personal favorability numbers are declining and his stimulus bill is becoming less popular over time. Some of this is inevitable, but there is also the sign he is losing control and losing his grip.
Nicole Wallace, former McCain campaign advisor and an authority on bad weeks, writes that Obama had a really bad one:
Team Obama has a big problem on its hands. The White House has lost control of the press narrative. No single news cycle can make or break a president’s momentum. But getting trapped under a damaging narrative can take weeks to shake off. The bad Obama narrative was summed up by Sen. Lindsey Graham today: “If this is the change we all can believe in, then Americans’ best days are behind them.”
Before a bad week turns into a bad month or a bad year, Obama and his advisors might consider some simple measures to help regain the high ground. We offer ten suggestions.
First, never, ever let Nancy Pelosi carry the ball for the administration. Her contempt for bipartisanship, political extremism, and inability to defend her own handiwork make her politically toxic. From here on out President Obama would do well to deliver the legislation he wants, and position himself as a force for moderation, not the lackey of the speaker. And he might help his image as a consensus-builder by having a “Sister Nancy” moment in which he slaps down her brand of left-wing partisanship.
Second, fire Robert Gibbs. He’s embarrassing, cringe-inducing, really. And he’s done the impossible, which is to annoy the mainstream media. Find a tax problem. Promote him. Anything. Just send him on his way.
Third, figure out if he wants to be Reagan (bipartisan, high-minded) or Carter (peevish and partisan). It is hard to do both. And, if he tries, he only creates the aura of hypocrisy and confusion. (Reagan is better, by the way, if he’s interested in a second term.) The effort to up the partisan bile hasn’t benefited him. As Charles Blow of the New York Times noted:
In a Gallup poll released Wednesday, a slightly larger percentage of Americans said that since Obama was elected, the level of civility between Democrats and Republicans in Washington had gotten worse, not better. And, as one would expect, nearly twice as many Republicans as Democrats thought that the tone had gotten worse. (Half all of respondents said that it had stayed the same.) …
Democrats, on the other hand, should know better, especially No Drama Obama. He comes across as much more competent when he appears unflappable. That’s part of what inspires so much confidence in him, and confidence is all people had to go on with the stimulus bill.
Fourth, find all the tax and other appointee problems in a week and clear out all the less-than-squeaky-clean appointees at once. The drip, drip of further issues and complications will snarl him in a never-ending storyline that is disastrous for Democrats: they raise taxes ‘cause they don’t pay them.
Fifth, project strength and confidence on foreign policy. No more scraping and bowing to the Iranians. It is unseemly and doesn’t work. Take credit for the ongoing successes in Iraq and praise the elections to the hilt. So long as President Obama gives the impression he is embarrassed by American policy or its might, our adversaries won’t take us seriously and our friends won’t rely on us.
Sixth, make a major address on free trade and ask Congress to ratify the South Korea and Colombia free trade deals. Nothing is more dangerous for the world economy than a trade war. And nothing provides greater hope for a recovery than securing and expanding free and open trade.
Seventh, make clear in definitive terms that the Bush tax cuts will remain in place until we have firm evidence the recession is over. He has hinted as much, but the markets could use the encouragement. This will engender some confidence in the business community, help “unspook” investors, and deprive Republicans of a major campaign issue for 2010.
Eighth, stop appointing senators to cabinet and other key posts. There is no evidence senators have the requisite management skills to lead large organizations. And, moreover, the prospect of still more appointments (Sen. Ron Wyden is up for HHS, we are told) will necessitate that there be more gubernatorial selections to back fill their slots. This only perpetuates the political complications and appearance that the Democratic Party isn’t very democratic. And we don’t need any more seat warmers.
Ninth, less is more. He’s only been president for two and a half weeks but he is in danger of becoming overexposed and stepping on his own news cycles. The power of the presidency isn’t enhanced by increasing the frequency of his appearances, but by making them meaningful and compelling. It really didn’t help his cause to appear on five networks to apologize for “screwing up” on Tom Daschle.
Tenth, stop complaining. He tells the school kids he’s glad to be out of the White House. He’s impatient with the pace of legislation. He’s obviously peeved with the Republicans. There is something to be said for happy warriors and optimistic leaders. The country, struggling to work itself out of a recession, doesn’t need a whiny, morose chief executive.
None of these are very difficult tasks. But they require a fundamental rethinking on Obama’s part of the role he has stepped into and the shift from partisan candidate to president. It requires recognition that governing is different than campaigning, that the press won’t always make excuses for him, and that the American people expect more from their president than they do from a candidate. For the Obama team, it’s time to raise their game.