Jim Rutenberg’s article in the June 23 New York Times Magazine (“Data You Can Believe In”) was informative on several levels. In it, he provided a detailed description of how the 2012 Obama presidential campaign used precision targeting of “persuadable” voters to re-elect the President. As explained by Mr. Rutenberg, the methods used were easily transferable to targeted advertising that could radically change the work of the descendants of the Mad Men.
But the same methods that work well in electing a president don’t necessarily lead to a successful presidency. And as Mr. Obama again faces a Congress that appears committed to blocking any meaningful legislative initiatives, he may have only himself to blame. Running the country, it turns out, may well require entirely different strategies from running a campaign, and unless and until Mr. Obama and his staff realize this point, the country may be in for another four years of D.C. gridlock.
Mr. Obama has shown that he can deliver a well-crafted speech with the best of them. He has also shown a willingness to compromise when necessary to move his agenda. What he hasn’t shown is the courage to take his principles and his commitments out of campaign-mode tactics and become a true leader of the whole country.
Think for a moment of the way in which Obama makes the case for his initiatives. He has two basic approaches. One is to deliver one of those rip-roaring speeches, and the other is to chide at the opposition in a press conference. The latter tactic may enliven his base, but it hardly endears him to his opposition. Now think about those speeches. Most often they are delivered in a campaign-style rally with supporters of the policy he is espousing cheering as if they are a studio audience responding to an “applause” sign.
That approach works well in a campaign, where image is critical. Candidates need to appear popular to create the impression that they are winners. And the Obama campaigns (both in ’08 and ’12) were excellent at conveying that impression. But when it comes to selling a policy, a president needs to have the courage to take his ideas and his plans for the country into territory where he may not be all that popular. And in this part of being a president, Mr. Obama has been pretty bad, if not terrible.
Think about it. When has this president ever debated real policy with an opponent (other than the few presidential debates, which were more theatrical than substantive)? Has he ever gone into a Republican Congressional district to espouse a policy he believes in? Has he ever offered to debate a Republican leader on a matter of substance? How often, indeed, does he even visit red states in the Deep South or in America’s heartland, where opposition to many of his policies is the strongest?
It’s too easy to push for acceptance of policies and legislative initiatives to constituents who are already inclined to agree with those policies and initiatives, and it accomplishes relatively little to make a big show of those efforts. In fact, the sight of Obama speaking before a cheering throng of supporters on any specific policy initiative more than likely serves to turn off those who are inclined to oppose him rather than to rally them to his side.
His behind-the-scenes efforts are equally misguided. As one who somehow came to be on a number of pro-Obama lists, I am the recipient of a veritable deluge of e-mails asking me to support his policy initiatives. I seriously doubt that those e-mails (or any others seeking support) go to those who opposed his re-election or otherwise align themselves with Republican dogma.
Thus, Obama is playing to a static field that cannot lead to legislative victories so long as the House of Representatives is controlled by the Republicans. And the fact that the House is firmly in Republican hands is also as much the result of Obama’s failed leadership as any other political factor. Yes, the districts in most states were gerrymandered after the 2010 census to reflect the current balance in favor of the Republicans, but that result only occurred because the 2010 elections saw Republicans sweeping to victory in many state houses and state legislatures.
Now, ask yourself how that happened a scant two years after Mr. Obama’s decisive victory in the ’08 election.
The answer is that the public had turned on him in those swing states and districts where he failed to take the battle for the Affordable Care Act, his chief legislative initiative in those first two years. Yes, he got that bill passed and enacted into law, but his “campaign” on its behalf was weak. Indeed, Nancy Pelosi deserves more credit for its enactment than Obama does. And after it was passed, Obama did little to calm the fears of those who had opposed it.
I still recall the ridiculous statement he made the day after he signed it into law. “I woke up today,” he said, “and the sky isn’t falling.” How was that sentiment supposed to reassure those who feared the worst results from the new law? What did that statement do to educate the masses of the benefits of the bill? What, indeed, had Obama done during the lengthy period of debate about the bill to reach those who would be most helped by it, but who are locked into Fox News and Rush Limbaugh as their sources of information?
My point is that running to be the president is different than being the president. Running to be the president requires turning out your base and persuading the “persuadables” to vote for you. Being the president requires reaching out to and educating those who would otherwise oppose your agenda. Running for president requires you to appear to be a superstar. Being the president requires you to debate those who disagree with you, to engage in intellectual battle with your political enemies, to convince those who are otherwise inclined to reject your leadership.
It takes, simply stated, the courage not to be a politician. And that quality is one that this president has yet to show he has.