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US/ Obama on The Defensive

According to Michael Sean Winters a remarkable fact of the Obama administration has been its dismal ability to communicate with the American electorate about its accomplishments

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Democrats have a genetic predisposition to hand-wringing. The memo from James Carville and Stan Greenberg criticizing President Obama’s re-election effort, and the commentary thereon , is par for the course: In 1992, there were plenty of criticisms of Carville, Greenberg and their man Bill Clinton as he entered the Democratic Convention in New York trailing both President George H.W. Bush and Third Party, First-Tier Crazy Ross Perot. Events, some of them unforeseeable, intervene, upsetting established narratives. Message discipline is important in a candidate and among his or her surrogates, but it is not always enough.

Still, one of the most remarkable facts about the Obama administration has been its dismal ability to communicate with the American electorate. Obama’s candidacy was built upon nothing but words at first: He was launched onto the national stage by reason of his 2004 convention keynote speech, not because he had negotiated a peace settlement abroad as an ambassador, nor devised a key piece of legislation as in the Illinois State Senate. His verbiage, combined with the sense that here was history in the making, was his selling point. But, once he got to the White House, what happened?

In January 2006, before Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency, I had coffee with a friend who had worked in his Senate office. The aide admired Obama enormously, pointed to the historical nature of his candidacy, and expressed grave misgivings about then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s polarizing personality, misgivings I shared. I was sold. But, the aide also said something that I did not pay sufficient attention to at the time: “When you peel away all the layers of the onion, at his core, Obama is a policy wonk.” The image of Obama as a policy wonk was so at odds with the image we saw during the campaign, that I had almost forgotten the observation. How could a man so capable of giving such inspiring speeches really view the world through the eyes of a wonk?

What is stunning about the Obama presidency has been his unwillingness to defend his own accomplishments. Once some focus group told David Axelrod they don’t like the stimulus, the administration stopped defending it. Once the Republicans criticized him for claiming credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden, they stopped claiming credit. As the article in Politico highlighted above notes, even on the bailout of the auto industry, the administration has been slow to take credit where credit is due, or even to point out how mendaciously Mitt Romney has discussed the issue. In 2010, most Democrats were running away from their vote for the Affordable Care Act instead of defending it and, consequently, the GOP was able to define a piece of legislation that should be seen as an enormous accomplishment.