There was a common theme among White House operatives and liberal commentators yesterday. David Axelrod, appearing on MSNBC, promised the President would continue fighting to address the anxieties felt by middle class voters. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said the results in the special election in Massachusetts did not mean the President "should stop fighting for an economic recovery, that we should stop fighting for what we need to do to create an environment for the private sector to hire." In this morning’s Post, E. J. Dionne writes that the President needs "to come out fighting."
The President himself sat down for an interview with George Stephanopoulos and maybe he did not get the memo because there was no "fight" whatsoever in his voice, no fight in his posture, no fight in his words. It was all balanced commentary, all "no drama Obama," all calm analysis.
Of course, the President is no dummy, and as part of his analysis of his situation, he recognized that he has been trapped in wonk mode, that he has failed to stay in touch with average Americans because he was so busy actually trying to learn and make policy decisions. Look at this part of their exchange:
OBAMA: And, you know, if there's one thing that I regret this year, is that we were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us, that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values. And that I do think is a mistake of mine. I think the assumption was, if I just focus on policy, if I just focus on the, you know this provision, or that law, or are we making a good, rational decision here --
STEPHANOPOULOS: That people would get it. OBAMA: That people will get it. And I think that, you know, what they've ended up seeing is this feeling of remoteness and detachment where, you know, there's these technocrats up here, these folks who are making decisions. Maybe some of them are good, maybe some aren't, but do they really get us and what we're going through? And I think that I can do a better job of that and partly because I do believe that we're in a stronger position now than we were in a year ago.
STEPHANOPOULOS: That people would get it.
OBAMA: That people will get it. And I think that, you know, what they've ended up seeing is this feeling of remoteness and detachment where, you know, there's these technocrats up here, these folks who are making decisions. Maybe some of them are good, maybe some aren't, but do they really get us and what we're going through? And I think that I can do a better job of that and partly because I do believe that we're in a stronger position now than we were in a year ago.
As I mentioned yesterday, the kind of thing that drives Independent voters bonkers is when they see 2,000 page bills because they know that no one except a few lobbyists and staff really know what is in there and, just so, they see this as an affront to basic notions of self-governance. Here, in the interview, the President acknowledges the disparity between the policy-making part of the job and the communications part, but he also seems to see communications difficulties as one more technical issue in need of a fix. He does not explicitly link it to his views about democracy.
It is easy to make fun to the tea party crowd, and indeed, many, perhaps most, of them invite ridicule or worse. But, the sense of being disconnected from government is very real as soon as you get outside the Beltway. The President needs to find some bold ways to make citizens feel re-connected to their government. I have suggested, until I am blue in the face, that legislators find ways to draft legislation that is readable. I think a radical simplification of the tax code is something with populist appeal that could steal a march on the Republicans.
Most of all, the President needs to show some fight. One of the hallmarks of Obama’s campaign was their ability to adjust to shifting currents of opinion, to address difficulties head-on. As the interview showed yesterday, the President is supremely capable of self-criticism. But, he needs to show some fight. That is easier on the campaign trail then it is in the White House. But, instead of deferential comments about what the House and Senate should do, he needs to head up to Capitol Hill and knock some heads together. It is time for some drama from No Drama Obama.