It's not his policies they complain about but his messaging. Is that fair?
Second, Congress has blocked most of Obama’s agenda for the past two years, which has in turn exacerbated the country’s economic and fiscal crises. While Newt Gingrich’s famously intransigent 104th Congress allowed the government to shut down in 1995 and 1996, his 105th acquiesced to certain tax increases in a much-heralded 1997 budget deal that today’s House, beholden to a no-tax pledge, would deem dead on arrival. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have kept busy playing nullifier, filibustering everything from jobs bills to low-level judicial appointments.
Finally, the Clintonites place far too much faith in the bully pulpit. After all, when Obama does choose to use it, he’s not always rewarded. From Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum, in 2010:
Obama’s sangfroid and equanimity in the face of the worst crises became a subject of fevered agitation among the press and some critics in his own party, who accused him of failing to exploit the ultimate power of the presidency, its bully pulpit. But the moment that Obama responded to a suggestion from the Today program’s Matt Lauer that] he needed to “kick some butt” regarding the oil spill — by allowing that he was, indeed, doing his best to figure out “whose ass to kick” — he was denounced by some of those same critics as demeaning the dignity of the presidency.
But even this anecdote obscures the larger point: what presidents say, especially in harsh economic circumstances, matters very little. As political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson argue in a recent Presidential Quarterly article, the bully pulpit helps presidents set their agenda, but does very little to determine “how citizens or legislators respond to these issues.”
Which is all to say: if Obama had been dealt a better hand, he’d be cruising to reelection, and we probably wouldn’t be dissecting his communications strategy. Granted, the Clintonite critique I’ve identified is not completely unjustified. When a health care bill is broadly unpopular but the general public is in favor of most of its individual parts, clearly something’s been lost in translation. Indeed, Obama himself admitted in July that he spent too much of his first term governing, and not enough time telling a “story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.”
Still, I got the sense from the Clinton folks that they didn’t have a serious beef with Obama’s first-term performance. Rather, like Bubba himself, they’re backseat drivers who don’t want the newbie to wreck the car. “A lot of it is nostalgia,” says the official who worked in both White Houses. “Anyone you talk to that’s still in the immediate Clinton circle has no appreciation for the fact that not everybody is Bill Clinton.”
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