Obama's Poor Politicking

Obama's Poor Politicking

By David Paul Kuhn - August 23, 2010

CNN political analyst Gloria Borger recently posed a question: "How does the great communicator, Barack Obama, lose a communications battle?"

The assumption is revealing. The Obama hyperbole has gradually faded into reality. Said to be a brilliant politician. Said to be a great communicator. The conventional perceptions of Obama were flawed from the outset. The political class has gradually come to recognize those flaws in isolation. But enough aberrations construct a norm. The presumed exceptions become the rule. And in time, the premises themselves require reexamination.

Obama's mismanagement of the debate over Park51, the Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero, is a window into the president we have come to know. This is not a matter of man versus myth. It's man versus man. It's now plainly silly to place Obama beside the great communicators of the television age. He's no Reagan or Kennedy, in this sense. But this mosque incident, like so many incidents before it, also raises deeper questions. Does Obama simply have poor political instincts?

There is the failure to seize upon, if not lead, during defining moments. There was the cool response to the AIG bonuses early on. There was the BP disaster this summer.

There was the bad theater. The expressions of American mistakes abroad. Not said from a position of strength. But said at a time when America was confronting its own national weakness.

There were the impotent uses of power. The fruitless chase of GOP moderates on healthcare. The failed attempt to push out the New York governor. The presumptuous firing of Shirley Sherrod. The inability to manage Charlie Rangel.

There were the unforced errors. Many with deep cultural resonance. The "bitter" slip during the 2008 campaign. Last summer's cop and prof circus. Now the Muslim Park51 mess.

Why did Park51 become a presidential mess? Obama defended the right to have the mosque near Ground Zero. But the day after, he refused to comment on whether it was right. By midweek, Obama said he had no regrets. The law professor would not further incriminate himself.

Obama could have taken the principled stand on the mosque. It would not have been popular. But the principled stand can outlive the popular stand. It testifies to character. And that gets to grit, the central value by which all presidents are judged. Instead, Obama refused to weigh into the wisdom of building a mosque near Ground Zero. Liberals were left without the moral leadership they crave. Americans were left without the character they respect.

That returns us to Borger's question. Where is this great communicator? The man reporters' described with such esteem, often awe, during the campaign? Was Obama ever the man many thought they knew?

The most underestimated aspect of the 2008 campaign was the political environment. Could even a Ronald Reagan have beaten a Democrat two years ago? Unlikely. It is forgotten how clumsily Obama dealt with the rare obstacle. How difficult it was for him to manage Sarah Palin until she imploded. How difficult it was for him to walk back the bitter remarks. How difficult it was to close the deal on Hillary Clinton. How lucky he was to campaign in a year where the economy trumped cultural issues, when his Hyde Park liberal persona would not undercut his bid and John McCain's war heroics lacked resonance. He was, from image to temperament, the polar of his unpopular predecessor. But in the end, it was still the market crash that assured his victory.

That too reminds us of Obama's questionable instincts on the grand scale. This is a candidate who only sustained majority support after the market crashed on September 15. Yet Obama focused his first year on myriad liberal dreams over the economic crisis. Unlike most Americans, his priorities did not change with the crisis. Obama failed to meet the moment in rhetoric as well. He never gave the great speech to match this Great Recession. And rhetoric was supposedly his specialty.

It's not that Obama is bad at the trade. He simply falls far short of the hype. This is not a man "misunderestimated," to use his predecessor's term. And that is partly Obama's own fault.

This is the same man who, on the cusp of his national address at the 2004 Democratic convention, told a reporter "I'm LeBron, baby." This is the president who reportedly told Democratic lawmakers "the big difference here and in '94, was you've got me."

"I'm pretty good at politicking," Obama recently said at a fundraiser.

To borrow from Golda Meir, there's no need to be so humble.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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