Obama's Communications Gap

Obama's Communications Gap

By David Ignatius - July 17, 2011

WASHINGTON -- A prominent Bush administration official was talking privately about Barack Obama last week: He's probably going to win in 2012, this Republican said. He deserves credit for "going big" in the budget talks and capturing the center of the debate. But why isn't he projecting his goals and philosophy more clearly to the country? Why does he so often seem to react, rather than lead?

Given Obama's strengths, this Republican observer continued, his White House advisers should already be thinking about what Obama can achieve in a second term. They should begin drafting plans and policies, but even more, they should be communicating the president's vision. Instead, every day at this White House seems like "The Perils of Pauline," with one cliffhanger after another.

The debt-limit crisis is a scary example of this tendency to follow, rather than lead. Through 2010, the Obama White House kept its distance from deficit-reduction proposals, and when it finally entered the fray, it was in the person of Vice President Biden. One official told me bluntly last year that floating proposals too early was a loser, politically.

So Obama waited. His policy ideas, now that they're public, look pretty solid. But rather than uniting the country behind a vision for reforming entitlements and taxes, he looks like a man being dragged into church by a firebrand preacher named Eric Cantor. The Republicans look bad, but so does Obama.

This communications gap is apparent in foreign policy, too. Obama may have a vision for why American troops should remain in Afghanistan until 2014, but he doesn't convey it forcefully. This is his war, but he embraces it reluctantly and without clear definition. He places equal emphasis on withdrawing troops and staying the course, which confuses people.

The same is true for the Arab Spring. Obama has had it about right, in policy terms. U.S. strategy is a sensible mix of pragmatism and principle. America supports the movements for democratic change in the autocratic republics, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria. It respects the more conservative traditions of the pro-Western monarchies and sheikdoms, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain, Morocco and Kuwait. This distinction isn't complicated, it just needs to be explained.

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Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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