Monday, May 24, 2010

Defining the Narrative

What do Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have in common? Besides the fact that both were two-term presidents, most would say nothing. Reagan was a conservative Republican from California and a staunch supply-sider; Clinton a moderate Democrat from the South who was a proponent of healthcare reform. Both men could not be further apart on the political spectrum, and yet with all the dissimilarities, there are a couple of things they shared. First off, both men were exceptionally adept at spinning their own message. For lack of a better term, they both defined the narrative of their respective administrations.

Politics, whether one likes to admit it or not, is less about reality and more about perception. Those presidents who can create and successfully control that perception more often than not get their agendas through. Additionally, when the road gets bumpy and they are confronted by criticisms, they effectively use their bully pulpits to ward off such attacks.

Reagan, despite historic deficits and a rough first two years that saw massive unemployment, was able to brush back critics of his policies while simultaneously blaming his predecessor. The unemployment and deficits were Jimmy Carter’s fault, despite the fact that Reagan had been in office two years. Reagan was relentless in his claims. Hence the perception became the reality. Three decades later, he is still regarded as one of the most successful presidents of the twentieth century.

Clinton, despite presiding over a healthcare debacle that deeply wounded his prestige, overseeing a colossal loss in the mid-terms that saw Republicans take control of both houses of Congress, and being embroiled in a sex scandal that compromised and threatened his very office, managed to enjoy a remarkably successful tenure, including being the first president since Truman to significantly reduce the debt and balance the budget. Like Reagan, the public’s perception of Clinton was greater than his acknowledged frailties. Hence, to this day he is viewed positively by presidential historians. Both men finished with a 68% approval rating when they left office.

Secondly, both men shared something else: an exceptional ability to relate to the difficulties of the electorate and make them their own. In layman’s terms: empathy. Reagan’s “My fellow Americans” and Clinton’s “I feel your pain,” were classic examples of both men’s ability to connect with the “common man” and garner support, even during difficult times. The political capital that such traits afforded them often was the difference between success and failure. In the case of Clinton his legislative accomplishments, especially during his second term, would’ve been impossible, save for his high approval rating among voters.

And that brings us to one President Barack Obama. Clearly Obama is one of the brightest and most astute presidents we’ve seen in quite some time. That he inherited the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression is not in dispute, at least not by anyone in possession of the facts. The steps that were taken averted a calamity, even if some thought they were either insufficient or over the top.

And therein lies the problem at hand.  For all his talents and ambition, Obama, so far, has shown little evidence of possessing even a sliver of the aforementioned character traits. He has been sorely bereft of defining his message and has shown little if any empathy. The latter of these two deficiencies has been particularly troubling given the desperate straits the economy has been in over the last year and a half. While poll after poll still confirms that the voters, as a whole, do not blame him for the recession, those same polls show a deepening dissatisfaction with the way he has handled the economy since entering office. They also reveal a president that has had a difficult time relating to their plight. The drop in both polls is alarming in that both are intrinsically mirror images of each other. Since people often form opinions of their elected officials in emotional and sometimes irrational ways, when those same people perceive a lack of caring and empathy that tends to translate to a lack of support for those elected officials’ policies. Now couple that with an unwillingness or inability to define his agenda thoroughly to the American people and it is little wonder we have seen his approval numbers dip so precipitously.

Both Reagan and Clinton would’ve had Obama for lunch in this department, especially Reagan, who never passed up an opportunity to rip his predecessor for the economic malaise the country was in. Not since Roosevelt had the country seen a president so successfully and brazenly manipulate the media, define his narrative, and still retain a direct channel to the voter. Even his staunchest adversaries were often forced to tip their hats to him in amazement.

Whatever transformation this president needs to do he must do and do fast. Whether Obama feels comfortable or not, he must take command of the bully pulpit and lead this nation. He must define the narrative of his administration. He must remove the political vacuum that is consuming his presidency and state unequivocally what his vision for the nation is. And while he is at it, he must develop a sense of empathy for the struggles of everyday Americans, many of whom still like him and believe in him, but who don’t think he believes in or cares about them. Like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, Obama must find the heart he needs to be that president who can relate to his constituents instead of just preaching to them.

Of late he has shown signs that the visionary we thought we were voting for might be coming out of his shell. The healthcare bill was a case study in redemptive politics. Obama badly mishandled the whole issue and not until the very end did he finally find it within him to push back against the vicious attacks and bring the bill all the way to the finish line. While flawed, it was nonetheless a legislative accomplishment that not even Clinton could deliver on. The financial reform package showed yet again that when push comes to shove this president is capable of stepping up and forcing the issue. Like healthcare it is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction.

We need more of this from this president. He must, as Thomas Friedman adroitly wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times, seize the opportunity afforded him by the Gulf Oil disaster and strive to “end our addiction to oil,” move the country away from fossil fuels and towards safer and renewable energy sources. This is, as Friedman correctly pointed out, Obama’s 9/11. The next move is his. He must break out of his comfort zone and show the nation the backbone it so desperately needs. Regardless of whether he is a one-term president or not, the crises that are occurring now demand an aggressive, hands on approach of a president who is as mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore, not the cool collected demeanor of a candidate who ran the perfect campaign.

The election is over, Mr. President. You won. You got the job. Now it’s time to act like it. Governing is far more difficult than campaigning, but it is governing that the nation needs now more than ever. Your critics are having a grand time defining you and your administration. Now would be a good time to step up and take back the mantle you so ineptly ceded them. You once said you admired Ronald Reagan.  Good; perhaps it's time to borrow a chapter or two from his playbook.  He wasn't called The Great Communicator for nothing. The nation is waiting, sir.  It’s your move.

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