President Obama speaks with Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas at Univision's… (C.W. Griffin / Miami Herald/MCT )
The presidential race is now officially in dueling gaffe mode, in which the candidates take turns seizing upon a remark their opponent made -- on video, if possible -- and casting it in the worst possible light. Having focused earlier in the week on Republican Mitt Romney's observation that 47% of the country is shiftless and President Obama's (14-year-old) remark in favor of redistributing income, the spotlight Thursday turned to Obama's statement that "you can't change Washington from the inside."
Romney pounced on the comment (which Obama made at a Latino voters' forum in Florida), saying at a campaign rally: "He said he can’t change Washington from inside. He can only change it from outside. Well, we’re going to give him that chance in November. He’s going outside."
Good one. Romney went on to promise to change Washington if elected, adding: "His slogan was, 'Yes we can.' His slogan now is, 'No I can't.' It's time for a new president."
Those are effective lines, but not surprisingly, they mischaracterized what Obama was saying. The president wasn't admitting to failure (except on changing the tone in Washington, which seems more polarized and bitter now than it was when he took office). He said the "big accomplishments" of his term, such as healthcare reform, happened because the public pressured lawmakers to act.
Nevertheless, that's a revealing remark. Obama campaigned in 2008 as someone who could work with both sides of the aisle. But at the forum Thursday, he complained that as soon as he took office, "you already had meetings among some of our Republican colleagues saying, 'How do we figure out how to beat the president?' " So if he's reelected, Obama said, he plans to have a "much more constant conversation with the American people, so they can put pressure on Congress to help move some of these issues forward."
In short, it's a bully pulpit strategy, not a process of finding middle ground between conservatives and liberals on Capitol Hill to advance a bipartisan version of his agenda.
Maybe that's not much of a surprise. Obama, after all, has behaved like Mr. Outside, keeping legislative leaders of both parties at arm's length and not trying to build personal relationships. And that's his prerogative; President Clinton was hardly chummy with the Republican majority in the House, but together they managed to get big things such as welfare reform and a (somewhat) balanced budget done.
Besides, Obama seems to believe there's no point in trying to work with Republicans, given his experience with them thus far. Republicans have a back-at-you complaint, saying they were routinely shut out of the legislative process when Democrats had majorities in both chambers. They also contend that it's been impossible to pin Obama down.
What's clearly the case is that the two sides haven't been able to work together on the most important issues confronting Washington. A crucial question for voters in November is which candidate is more likely to be able to deal with this dysfunction. On Thursday, Obama provided a window into his strategy: He's going outside Washington to the grass roots for help persuading opponents to move his way. It would be good to hear Romney's plan for overcoming that dysfunction from inside the Beltway.
As a footnote, here's a transcript of Obama's entire comment about changing Washington:
"Obviously, the fact that we haven't been able to change the tone in Washington is disappointing. We know now that as soon as I came in office, you already had meetings among some of our Republican colleagues saying, 'How do we figure out how to beat the president?' So I think that I've learned some lessons over the last four years. And the most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside. That's how I got elected. And that's how the big accomplishments like healthcare got done, was because we mobilized the American people to speak out. That's how we were able to cut taxes for middle-class Americans. Something that I'd really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people. So they can put pressure on Congress to help move some of these issues forward."