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Obama could learn from Bush

The president could solve his communications problem by studying how his predecessor did it.

November 28, 2010|By Richard Wolffe

The day before his party's shellacking in this month's elections, President Obama sat down with his economic team to examine the single most important issue for voters across the country: jobs.

But the question on the agenda was not how to accelerate the recovery or target job creation to the depressed Rust Belt. It wasn't even the challenge of how to persuade corporations to spend their cash piles on investments and jobs — although both have been extensively debated for many months. The president had called the meeting to grapple with what he and his propeller-head economists have been debating for some time: the wonkish question of whether today's high unemployment rate is structural or cyclical.

Such questions are no doubt vital to shaping economic and trade policies as well as the general worldview of the West Wing. But on the eve of an electoral disaster, the esoteric discussion in the Oval Office points to a larger challenge facing the Obama White House as it tries to stage its own revival.

Two years into this presidency, and many months into a sluggish recovery, may be a little late to try to agree on the root cause of today's high unemployment.

This lack of agreement on economic fundamentals is a primary factor behind one of this White House's most obvious failures: communications. As one senior Obama advisor told me the day after the disastrous midterms: "It was hard to find a single economic message when the economic team couldn't agree on a single economic policy."

Key members of Obama's dysfunctional economic team have finally left the administration, and one of his most visible staff shake-ups will be the gathering of a new team. However, a new economic team will not resolve the communications problems, as the president has readily admitted in recent weeks.

In fact, the president has been frustrated by his communications strategy for most of the last year. Such a chronic problem is not the result of a lack of talent inside the West Wing. Nor is it solely the result of high unemployment, as Obama's aides insist in public. Obama told me six months ago that poor communications had hampered his ability to execute his policies, and that was after several months of internal reviews.

But the White House has failed to realize that the communications problem is a symptom of Obama's problems, not a cause.

If Obama is serious about reclaiming his own narrative, he might want to look to the example of a man whose record he trashed at every turn in the presidential election: George W. Bush.

Six years ago, Bush's reelection campaign faced a daunting set of circumstances. Iraq had spiraled into a brutal civil war, while the rationale for the invasion had collapsed along with any signs of weapons of mass destruction. Job growth across Bush's four years in office was anemic, and there was deep concern about a so-called jobless recovery. Polls showed only about 40% of voters saying the country was on the right track.

So how did Bush survive? With a disciplined message and an undisciplined opponent.

Bush's self-styled mission was clear from beginning to end, whether or not you agreed with his policies: He wanted to keep America safe and fight the terrorists. He also was blessed with an opponent, John F. Kerry, who struggled to define or defend himself and stumbled over his own message on national security.

What is Obama's mission? His landmark economic legislation — the $814-billion Recovery Act — has been billed as a job creator, a job saver, a tax cutter and an investment in the nation's future. It may be all of those things, but it has proved exceptionally hard to be all things to all people. As Vice President Joe Biden told me, few voters know who saved the teachers' jobs in their children's schools, while many employees had no idea they were getting a tax cut with the extra money in their paychecks. Both were in fact thanks to Obama's Recovery Act.

The lesson of 2004 is that the president cannot be an empty vessel for hope, no matter how big or small his own hopeful base. And if he doesn't fill the vessel with his own story of how and why he delivered on hope, then his opponents will fill it for him.

Despite their postelection gloom, there are in fact several reasons for Obama's supporters to be hopeful. The stock market, a central indicator of investor confidence, has regained most of the ground it lost since the financial meltdown of 2008. Growth has returned and employment is inching upward. Over the next two years, there is plenty of time for that growth and employment to accelerate.

Then there is this salient fact: The pundits have prematurely written this president's obituary too many times before. For most of the first year of his campaign, he was going nowhere. After the New Hampshire primary, he was a flash in the pan. After Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, he could not close the deal. After Sarah Palin's nomination, he was emasculated.

And, after the Democrats lost the Massachusetts Senate race, the Obama presidency was pronounced finished and healthcare reform was presumed to be dead on arrival. That was just two months before Obama signed healthcare reform into law, completing a Democratic dream and the biggest domestic legislation in a generation.

Reports of Obama's political death have been greatly exaggerated. To prove the pundits wrong, he needs to take control of writing his own story once more.

Richard Wolffe's latest book, "Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House," came out last week.

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