President Obama's Challenge

The President will hold a press conference later today. Many of the questions will not doubt focus on the administration’s response to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. That response has been fitful, uncoordinated, and unsuccessful, so the President deserves to be grilled on what he will be doing differently going forward.

But, the press conference also demands something more. President Obama must do well what candidate Obama brilliantly. He must create a narrative that explains to average folks the many discrete tasks his administration has undertaken, relates them one to another and all of them to a sense of national purpose.


In the campaign, of course, the creation of a narrative was easier because the unifying principle of his policies was "change" a contentless noun. Once elected, it became necessary to put some content into the change, to enact actual policies not prospective ones, to choose among alternatives. In a campaign, the electorate can project onto a candidate their hopes, see what they want to see, but once elected, the President has had to disabuse some people whose goals were not his, especially those from the extreme leftwing within his own party. is not the Tea Party of the Left, but it is close.

The President’s day, of course, recognizes no such unifying narrative. A series of unrelated events and challenges arise and must be dealt with, most of the unexpected. Certainly no one expected the disaster in the Gulf, nor that the North Koreans would sink a South Korean ship, and the two events have nothing to do with one another except that both have diverted attention away from the immigration reform and climate change legislation the President was hoping to pursue. It is easy and understandable to fall into reflex mode, but successful presidencies rise above the fray by keeping before the country a consistent and coherent narrative that encompasses new challenges but keeps the political focus on the goals the candidate set before the country at election time.

President Obama would be well served by using today’s press conference to speak about his vision of the common good. It is an amorphous phrase, of course, but it would allow him to describe his policies and distinguish them from the Republicans, in useful ways. The financial reform measure before Congress is an effort to protect the investments of average folk from the shenanigans of a few investment bankers on Wall Street. The health care reform was primarily an effort to ensure that the health care system includes all and lowers costs for average folks rather than a system built to line the pockets of the insurance companies. And, whatever measures he announces regarding offshore oil drilling must be seen as an effort to protect the ecosystem we all share from an irresponsible corporation and a corrupt government oversight agency. These different policies are discrete, but what unites them has to be the ideological sensibility the President brings to resolving them. This was a gift FDR and Ronald Reagan both had, to be able to explain their various proposals by referencing them back to their electoral themes.

One press conference does not make or break a presidency. That said, President Jimmy Carter’s "malaise speech" (which never mentioned the word malaise) came to encapsulate the difficulties and the depressiveness of his administration, and he never recovered from it. If a President does not provide the theme, the press will, and it will be less flattering. Obama’s style lacks the folksy charm of Reagan, or the patrician charm of FDR, but he can be enormously effective. In these last few months before the midterms, and with much of his legislative agenda hanging in the balance, President Obama needs to get out in front of his own challenges and provide the rest of us a narrative that explains how he is approaching those challenges, and how we can better understand his proposals. By uniting his policies and his politics to his perception of the common good, the President gives us a hermeneutic with which to understand and judge him. That is better for him and for us than letting the events of the day provide a chaotic and incoherent narrative, driven by events not by men. The President should announce his plans for off-shore drilling, of course, but most importantly, he must articulate, today and always, his vision of the common good and how his policies relate to it.

Michael Sean Winters

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7 years 12 months ago
"Certainly no one expected... that the North Koreans would sink a South Korean ship"

Really? As I recall President Bush II called North Korea one of the axis of evil. Seems like Bush thought they were capable of evil. Or at least he didn't think they would sit down and have tea and politely negotiate peace!
James Lindsay
7 years 12 months ago
Luckily for the President, the top kill seems to have worked, so he can likely announce that.

This conference will unlikely influence much, barring a serious gaffe, since it is occurring during working hours, not in prime time.

Of course, press conferences are not about the President's message as much as what the press brings up. As such, it is another form of going from crisis to crisis without a specific plan. It is still necessary, however, since he has not had one lately.
7 years 12 months ago
What is the most pressing problem the US has today.  Is it the Gulf oil spill, is that Iran may have a nuclear weapon soon, is it that North Korea seems to want to start a war, is it the flood of illegal immigrants through the SW border, it is the affect of man made weather change on climate and the environment?
No, it is none of these.  It is the extremely high unemployment and underemployment rates.  Obama approached the Republican senators the other day and gave them his priorities and asked for their help before the next elections.  He did not include jobs in that priority list though he did mention it in passing.  Mr. Winters has drank the Obama kool aid and he too does not mention what should be the focus of Mr. Obama's speech today.  I hope the president presents a clear plan on how the economy is to be turned around.
James Lindsay
7 years 12 months ago
To include the one fact left out of the blog entry. The press conference is at 1245 EDT (1145 CDT, 1045 MDT and 945PDT). In other words, 4 minutes from now.

Michael, will you review it today in a new entry or will we all comment here?
James Lindsay
7 years 12 months ago
He's quite justifiably throwing the book at big oil and there is not really much big oil can do to respond.

Let's see what happens with the Energy bill now and with the price of oil, since speculators may use this as an excuse to bid the price up (my thought, not Obama's). If they do, I would not be surprised if there is renewed call for market legislation - possibly slipped into financial regulatory reform if it isn't already there. Of course, even the hint of regulation will have impact on speculator bids, who will have to cover their losses by selling other assets. I still believe this is what happened in 08 and if we are not careful, it could happen again.
7 years 12 months ago
The polish is off the President, although he remains popular personally; he has had one of the rockiest first years in modern presidential history and has shown himself to be rather inept at the act of governing in many respects.  Despite this, he personally he remains somewhat popular, no doubt in some measure do the historic nature of his election and he generally comes across as a smart genial guy.
The problems come in though, and I'm not sure smart and genial is what people want to see.  His liberal policies are quite unpopular, and as Peggy Noonan has brilliantly pointed out, its a kiss of death if the old bulls of the party simply 'like'' him; they have to fear him.  There is no ''change'' that he has brought about, only greater uncertainty.  And I fear Mr. Winters's constant exhortation that President just ''explain it all to us one more time'', as if we rubes just don't get it, would be a kiss of death.  Making the President the ''explainer-in-chief'' would change ''smart and genial'' into ''arrogant elitist'' quicker than you can say GOP, and would confirm the suspicions of many Americans, including those that supported him, that he really isn't one of them (and NO that does NOT include any racist or ''birther'' overtones; I simply mean a regular person of high skill and character).  
James Lindsay
7 years 12 months ago
On his first term, he can be credited with saving Detroit and working with his predecessor to do so. When TARP was on the ropes, he led while McCain got weird and the stimulus bill, which in effect gave everyone an $800 raise and an $800 loan due at tax time (since the full credit was given to both spouses) pulled us out of an economic stall. He also bailed out the states and hopefully will do so again next week - this at the cost of Arlen Specter's job. By the time he is done with his second term (Palin won't win a state), he will likely rework the partial birth abortion law to include a health exception and put in protections against all the unborn from assisted viability (23 weeks) onward and may even reform taxes such that families can afford their children and not resort to abortion. Call it a win for the Bernardin wing of the Catholic Church (who gave him his first job).

All that, as well as negative comments about year one, have nothing to do with the press conference. It was mostly about oil, with a dash of invitation to bipartisanship on energy and immigration. We will see if some of the about to be out of office Republicans break ranks with McConnell in the next few months and vote for that hopey changy thing on these issues. I suspect they will.
7 years 12 months ago
''By the time he is done with his second term (Palin won't win a state), he will likely rework the partial birth abortion law to include a health exception and put in protections against all the unborn from assisted viability (23 weeks) onward and may even reform taxes such that families can afford their children and not resort to abortion''
Who is going to hire all the out of work and under employed people to generate the taxes in order to make this rosy scenario happen?  I hope it happens but nothing in the current cards or past history seems to point to anything like that.
7 years 12 months ago
"he can be credited with saving Detroit and working with his predecessor to do so."
-America seems fine without the Studebaker; I'm sure it would be so without the others.  And its funny to me that liberals can envision a world without the combustion engine, but not without the Ford Corporation.
"which in effect gave everyone an $800 raise and an $800 loan due at tax time"
- Funny, but I haven't gotten my check.
"He also bailed out the states and hopefully will do so again next week - this at the cost of Arlen Specter's job."
- I think Snarlin' Arlen has himself to thank for this.
"Call it a win for the Bernardin wing of the Catholic Church (who gave him his first job)."
- Unfortunately, that's a very small "wing"? And I think you should re-read your Paul re; "wings" and "divisions."
The judgment about his first term is not mine; it is a consensus opinion of right & left.  He has not delivered what he promised, and I think most Americans see that.  Too early to tell if he loses (and Palin will NOT be the nominee).
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 12 months ago
You're not going to like this, JR, but according to Hillary Clinton (in a recent talk at the Brookings Insitute), the rich are not paying their fair share in countries that are facing employment issues.  Both corporations and individuals are not being taxed at the rate needed to boost the economy to the point where jobs will be created.
She noted that Brazill, with the highest tax to GDP rate in the Western Hemisphere, is growing like crazy.  And the rich are getting richer, but they are also pulling the poor out of poverty.
7 years 12 months ago
Oh I see the Times reporting this morning that Obama tried to bring "change" to Pennsylvania by giving Sestak a job.  Is that a victory for you "Bernardin" Catholics?
7 years 12 months ago
''Both corporations and individuals are not being taxed at the rate needed to boost the economy to the point where jobs will be created.''
I have never seen where taxing people at higher rates creates jobs.  It removes money from people's pockets, thus reducing their spending and thus reducing what they buy or who they employ and thus reducing the number of people needed to support their buying patterns.  Of course if you mean government jobs then higher taxes will make it easier to pay them higher salaries and hire more of them to shuffle paper.  That is exactly what has happened in Greece.
I have been to Brazil recently and it is an interesting country.  It is nearly 100% energy independent and is about to begin one of the largest deep water drilling programs in the world.  However, there is essentially little health care for the poor there because the public system is so crowded and inefficient.  One of the cities I was in the children go to school in shifts, for four hours a day.  One starts at 8 AM, another at 1PM and a third at 6PM.  In the south of Brazil it is quite modern and some of their cities are excellent while there is a lot of poverty in the Northeast.
As far as income taxes in the US, the top 1% of income earners pays 40% of the income taxes.  That seems more than fair to me.  Do you want them to pay all of it?  And by the way I have never been in that position of paying so much tax but know that these are the people who drive jobs for the rest of us.  So taxing them at high rates just puts the poor slobs at lower levels out of work.  But around here that is known as social justice.


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