One of the great mysteries of the Obama administration has been how someone with such great gifts for public communications, and an apparent understanding of its importance--remember "words matter"?--could have done such a dismal job of communicating and communing with the American public. In his Washington Post column today E.J. Dionne offers a pretty good insight into this failure. It turns out Obama has a Bush problem, and I'm not talking about W.
There was a revealing moment in early August when Obama told an audience at a Texas fundraiser: "We have spent the last 20 months governing. They spent the last 20 months politicking." Referring to the impending elections, he added: "Well, we can politick for three months. They've forgotten I know how to politick pretty good."
Obama's mistake is captured by that disdainful reference to "politicking." In a democracy, separating governing from "politicking" is impossible. "Politicking" is nothing less than the ongoing effort to convince free citizens of the merits of a set of ideas, policies and decisions. Voters feel better about politicians who put what they are doing in a compelling context. Citizens can endure setbacks as long as they believe the overall direction of the government's approach is right.
There is something quaint and admirable about the notion of separating governing and politicking. But as Dionne suggest, it's also wrong. The modern presidency requires engaging and educating the public, often through the kind of communications at which Obama seemed such a natural during the 2008 presidential campaign.
The last president to have this sort of attitude toward governing and politicking was George H. W. Bush. Succeeding Ronald "The Great Communicator" Reagan, Bush displayed little interest in the showmanship side of the presidency. He felt that the substance of his administration's policies and accomplishments would speak for themselves. Being a workhorse, he would not have to be a show horse. This gave rise to signature moments like, "Message: I care."
History records Bush's fate. But his successor's is also instructive. Bill Clinton and his party suffered a smashing defeat in his first midterm race, apparently leaving his presidency foundering. But he was able to make midcourse corrections well enough to win a relatively easy re-election and have a successful tenure in office. With a perhaps similarly crushing 2010 midterm election apparently in the offing, the question for Obama and the Democrats is whether he can learn from his predecessors enough to have a successful 2012.