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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Recapturing the Narrative

OK, Now What…

There is a great line in the 1972 film The Candidate starring the young Robert Redford. In the film, Redford’s character is an aspiring politico named Bill McKay who takes on the seemingly hopeless task of running for the U.S. Senate against an older, wiser and completely entrenched incumbent. Through many fits and turns and much learning on the campaign trail, the younger man pulls off the improbable upset.

As the reality of winning begins to sink in, McKay turns to an aide and, displaying genuine wonder, asks: “What do we do now?” He never gets an answer as the film ends.

That scene is art imitating life. No successful candidate – at least those completely honest with themselves – would not ask themselves “now what” as the flush of victory gives way to the reality of governing.

Campaigns have a beginning, middle and an end and are about organization, style, poetry and luck. Governing – real governing – requires a different skill set and, very often, different personalities. Governing is day-by-day, hour-by-hour and, more and more, thanks to the never ending news cycle, minute-by-minute.

I’ve always thought that every newly elected candidate ought to be handed, along with a certificate of election, a card printed with an old and almost always true political axiom – the people who help you get elected are often not the people to help you govern. The Obama campaign crew – as good as they were at getting him elected – may just have run out of steam when the political hill climb is becoming the toughest.

Admittedly everything in Washington is an echo chamber and, while the intensity of the political game is greater inside the Beltway, the political reality is that more than a year and half into his term Obama – and his team – have ceased to be able to drive the national narrative.

A Republican friend, genuinely amazed by Obama’s legislative accomplishments and astounded by the White House inability to shape the national dialogue, said it well. The White House hasn’t had a week on message in weeks.

From the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the ham handed firing of an African-American women in the Department of Agriculture to the Muslim cultural center in New York the White House seems always to be reacting to events and even then can’t get a coherent message out. Fellow Democrats aren’t helping. The ethics scandal surrounding Charley Rangel, and now Maxine Waters, seems sure to dominate the political narrative for weeks to come.

Add on the polls. According to Gallup, Obama, at 46% or so approval, is in the pre-mid-term range with Bill Clinton in 1994, Lyndon Johnson in 1966 and Reagan in 1982. Democrats lost 53 seats in ’94 and 47 seats in ’66. Republicans dropped 28 seats with the Gipper in the White House in ’82.

There are two indispensable qualities most politicians need and many lack – self deprecation and self awareness. The impression has settled in that Obama is cold and aloof. Where some see smart and thoughtful, many others see above the fray, out of touch, elitist or, worst perhaps, someone so sure of himself as to be too sure of himself.

It is a deadly combination this aloofness and sureness, if it sticks.

Todd Purdum, the former New York Times White House correspondent, has a great political junkie piece in the current Vanity Fair. Purdum, after interviewing most of the top Obama brain trust, comes away thinking that the President is going to keep on keeping on. He’s made a calculated decision to try and play the Washington game differently. As Purdum concludes:

“Obama’s gamble is that, if you look after the doing of the presidency, the selling of the presidency will look after itself. The short-term price may come in stalled poll numbers, electoral setbacks, and endless contradictory advice from the kibitzers. The payoff, if there is one, lies out on some future horizon. Obama may be right about this strategy, or he may be wrong. But it is the strategy he is following nonetheless.”

It is a gamble and I think the President could help himself and those of us who at least don’t wish him to fail if he let us inside the thinking that shapes his gamble. He could also learn from others who held the office and ended up successful in history and on policy.

John Kennedy had the remarkable ability to poke fun at himself at news conferences and to be genuinely self deprecating. He once quipped, as Jackie was received like a Princess on a trip to France, that he was merely the guy who accompanied his attractive wife to Paris.

Ronald Reagan had an actor’s timing and sense of humor and both qualities never failed to serve him well.

When Franklin Roosevelt, the truest patrician to ever occupy the White House, died in 1945 a distraught mourner was asked if he had personally known the president. No, the man answered, but he knew me. Good quality for a successful president.

Obama needs to remind Americans why so many of them found him an appealing candidate in the first place. His exuberance. His ability to get off a good line, often at his own expense. His candor about race and his sense of reality about how tough the problems really are. A case in point. Rather than ignore the ridiculous charge from some in the Tea Party crowd that he is a “socialist,” Obama would be better off to find a funny and engaging way to point out just how nonsensical the notion really is.

He also needs to resurrect the prime time news conference from the East Room. Take the questions. Bat aside the silly ones. Call on FOX News and join the dance. Above all educate the country about our hard choices. The guy got elected, after all, in no small part because he made a lot more sense most of the time than an angry, snarling John McCain.

The headline on Purdum’s Vanity Fair article is Washington, We Have a Problem. We do.

If Barack Obama really hopes to change Washington, and have a second term to do it, he has to adapt a good deal more than he has or than he appears inclined to do.

It may be time – or past time – to ask those smart guys who helped get him elected: Now what?

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