In a perfect world, our president would be judged on incremental achievements as well as on bold visions. We the people would understand and accept that the president must be schooled in both the art of compromise and the messiness of politics. Of course, Washington would be more about pride of accomplishment and less about the turgid pace of the legislative politics; more about responsibility and less about power.
We don’t live in a perfect world, but rather one in which our perceptions are managed, massaged, and manipulated to a large degree by a diffuse but ever-present media. We know what we’re told and we know what we feel. We are, of necessity, forming opinions out of impressions. And our impressions, whether loyal supporter or rabid foe, are likely to be that this young presidency has some serious problems.
The White House seems to have lost control of its message, as Ken Auletta so aptly pointed out in a recent New Yorker article. Much of the problem is with present-day news delivery; the professionals are overwhelmed, the serious would-be professionals are fighting for space and the amateurs/inmates sometimes seem to have overtaken the blogosphere. In a medium that favors speed over accuracy and hyperbole over reflection, it’s harder than ever to use the media in making a point, let alone press an agenda.
And Obama’s crew has been overwhelmed with a host of issues, from security to the war to the economy to the dangerously overwrought plans for health care reform. Some of these issues have been managed relatively successfully, although you might not know it from the attention paid to the missteps. This Administration has to deal withits own party which, as usual, seems incapable of holding fast to its own ideals, let alone its message. Or maybe the party really is a lily-livered, wimpy, 90-pound weakling when it comes to the nasty sport of politics (bring back James Carville!) The Republicans have managed to pass legislation with a majority. The Democrats begin to tremble at the thought of a filibuster. One wonders if they could manage to stick to an agenda with 100 seats in the Senate.
Back to the message, or rather, the impression we’re left with as to what the message should be, because that’s apparently what elects Republicans in Massachusetts. Indiana Democrat Senator Evan Bayh noted about disillusionment with the Democratic Party: “I don’t think the American people last year voted for higher taxes, higher deficits and a more intrusive government. But there’s a perception that that is what they are getting.”
Actually American people voted for change and, if they’d been paying attention, for change that involved an activist government acting responsibly and stepping in (in some cases, temporarily) to right wrongs, manage programs, and oversee private sector industries that were floundering or otherwise out of control. To do this, they – we – elected a cool, erudite Harvard graduate with a background in community organizing and pragmatic politics, Chicago-style, someone who was never likely to say “I feel your pain.”
Damn, if that isn’t what we want, and that’s also part of the problem. We want change, although not too much change. But what we want even more is someone to visibly and vocally feel our outrage, our anger, our hysteria and then reassure us in the most personal manner possible that everything will be okay.
I still think the cerebral guy from Harvard could make the changes he holds dear to his heart, even without a filibuster-proof Senate. But he’s going to have to put more heart into it. He’s going to have to get tough (or appear to get tough); and he’s going to have to develop a much more personal and persuasive message, one that can change the impression too many Americans have that he’s not paying attention to how much they’re hurting.