Charm is not an economic policy

We heard it over and over on the campaign trail, “experience doesn’t matter,” “experience got us in this mess,” “what we need now is leadership,” and so on, ad nauseum.  And a healthy portion of independent voters eventually bought into this canard. 

Now, some of the president’s apologists have the gall to tell us that we cannot criticize the administration so early in the game.  Said Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post, “expecting the Obama team to operate perfectly under these conditions is like expecting a first-year med student to perform surgery.”  Ms. Marcus is absolutely correct.  This is why we tend to avoid having first year med students perform surgery and why we definitely don’t want to elect their political equivalent to the presidency.

But the campaign is over.  It is time to observe and scrutinize the Obama administration, from day one and at every turn.  And, with due respect to the President’s cheerleaders, we cannot afford to excuse every misstep and miscalculation just because a bunch of novices are running the country.  We need, at all times, a fully functioning presidency.

It is notable that the President’s new team features numerous DC veterans, particularly of the Clinton vintage, which originally augured well.  But the inner circle, the ones you see on Marine One, are generally lacking in any White House experience, and two of his closest advisers, David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, have no experience at all in the federal government.  This is not to say that only retreads need apply for top jobs, but it suggests that when an acknowledged novice comes to the presidency, slogans and mindless boosterism should be balanced with some serious attention to policy from people who know how to get things done.

One of the Bush-bashing bumper stickers that proliferated among those for whom catch phrases equal philosophy read “Yee-haw is not a foreign policy.”  Granted, but neither is charm an economic policy.  While it is a marginal improvement in the tenor of debate that President Obama is willing to personally engage the opposition party in dialogue, it will not, and should not, cause any representative to abandon the principles they were elected to advance.  Thinking such a personality-based overture would have Republicans eager to vote for a bill so contrary to their core beliefs belies a fundamental misread of the political process.

Interestingly, the place where the promise of hope and change fell flattest was not with the Republicans, who sensibly hoped they would be able to work with a popular president or, at least not be seen to work against him.  It was Obama’s allies on the Hill who rolled him almost effortlessly on the stimulus package, overreaching to accomplish every liberal dream while harpooning their party and president’s standing with the public.  The Reid-Pelosi team (while firing plenty of barbs at each other) has given their young chief executive a clear tutorial on the old axiom, “the president proposes, but the Congress disposes.”

Since the stimulus drama began Republicans, according to Rassumssen, have erased an eight-point deficit in the generic congressional ballot test to pull even with Democrats.  And since his inauguration, the President’s approval index (the spread between those who approve and disapprove of Obama) has been cut almost in half.  These are stark indicators that the public is not responding positively to the Democrats undisciplined spending frenzy and their seeming lack of consistent leadership, and that the Republicans have managed their opposition effectively, positioning themselves as more prudent. 

In the face of these types of numbers and increasing criticism (even from the likes of Maureen Dowd) of the administration’s command of the situation, Democrats have done what they do best, attacked the Republicans.  Apparently the Republicans who hold decided minorities in Congress and got thumped in the presidential campaign are so crafty that they can run the country no matter how elections turn out.  It certainly seemed so when the President lobbed thinly-veiled grenades at the GOP in his first presidential press conference.  And the tactic served to stop the precipitous slide in public support for the stimulus although it is still supported by well under half the electorate.

Less than a month into the new presidency the high-minded goal of everyone pitching self-interest, (or principled disagreement) and following The One on the road to peace, equality, social justice, lower cholesterol and better hair, seems to have been totaled by the rampaging semi-truck of political reality.  Obama’s friends are making him look bad, his team is proving to be chock full of embarrassing hacks, he can’t give everyone in DC everything they want, and he’s falling back on time-honored partisan divisiveness to gain tactical advantage. 

Presidents Reagan and Clinton had a great talent for connecting with the American people and, in their ways, used charm as a potent tool in their administrations.  But both of them proved adept at managing a policy strategy.  Team Obama seems somewhat stunned that managing a government is much harder than managing a campaign.  Campaigns are mostly fluff compared to making real decisions that have real consequences.

It shows that the lofty rhetoric of the campaign was enough to instill hope in an electorate eager for change, but such words are useless when doing battle in the trenches of Washington.  The entrenched strength of government power is proving to be the formidable negative force in and of itself that conservatives have predicted for generations.  Such a force must be met with equal or greater force, not with charm and not with hope, if the President really expects to be the agent of change that he sold to the voters.

Douglas O’Brien is a public affairs consultant in Chicago
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