WHERE'S THE STORY? That brings us to perhaps the sharpest weapon in the presidential arsenal: telling the nation's story—framing the big political and policy debates. Democratic consultant Paul Begala points out that in 1982, when the country was in a recession and President Reagan was facing his first midterm election, Reagan "didn't blame President Carter or the Democrats. He indicted liberalism: too much government, too much taxation. To fix this mess, he said, we have to stay the course. That was his narrative. It was ideological; it was philosophical. It had sides. He had a story."
Granted, Obama had to push a case that would seem counterintuitive to many voters: At a time when everyone had to make do with less, the federal government would have to spend more. Yet he could have made that argument part of a bigger tale, one with heroes and villains, one in which voters could have a role and actively take a side. The Bush/Cheney collapse marked the failure of free-market conservatism, but Obama did not sufficiently emphasize this. He talked about fixes, not fundamentals. He did not effectively present voters with the key question: How would—how could—a post-industrial, post-dot-com, post-Big Finance economy work?
In his new book, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future, Reich argues the president "missed a key opportunity to expose the longer-term trend and its dangers. By averting the immediate financial crisis and then claiming that the economy was on the mend, he left us with a diffuse set of ongoing economic problems that seemed unrelated and inexplicable. [The public] feels the heat coming from many places—housing foreclosures, continued high unemployment, lower earnings, less economic security, widening inequality, soaring pay on Wall Street and in executive suites—but is bewildered, anxious, and, in many cases, angry."
Sure enough, Democrats became the targets of this economy-driven anxiety and anger—rather than figuring out how to explain and redirect it. (Noted: The specific subgenre of anger found among libertarian, anti-government tea partiers, ginned up by the right-wing media machine, may not be redirectable.) That's not a surprise; the president and the party in power always become pinatas when the economy stalls. Much is indeed out of their hands. Still, Obama had not told a forceful enough tale about the economy. "There's both an optics problem and a substance problem," says a senior Treasury Department official. "The substance problem is that big options require Congress, and there's little appetite for even anodyne things. And the White House, in the months before the final campaign stretch, hadn't spent as much time as I'd recommend on public events showing that it's his critical focus." At his first presidential press conference, Obama told voters how they could judge his proposals: by looking at the employment rate. Many seem to have done just that.
UNDERESTIMATING THE ENEMY. "You could see the right-wing campaign to discredit Obama and his policies coming from a mile away," says Begala. Yet Obama did not prepare voters for this; he stuck with his Olympian desire to be post-partisan and nonjudgmental. That gave the Rs plenty of running room to misrepresent and obstruct.
The last time a Democrat was in the White House, congressional Republicans—playing to their base and egged on by right-wing media—tried to destroy him.
The last time a Democrat was in the White House, congressional Republicans—playing to their base and egged on by right-wing media—tried to destroy him. Then, just as today, conservative partisans spread the most vicious disinformation about the president (Bill Clinton had been recruited by the KGB while a college student; he was involved with multiple murders and drug dealing in Arkansas). As Begala notes, expecting this not to happen again was "like marrying someone who cheated on her husband and expecting her not to cheat on you."
The week after that not-very-inspiring appearance in the Rose Garden, Obama kicked off the campaign season with a rousing speech outside Cleveland. He blasted the "blind faith in the market" that had caused economic disaster for the middle class. He praised his stimulus—without calling it that. He acknowledged that the bailouts had "fed the perception that Washington is still ignoring the middle class in favor of special interests." Then he slammed Republicans for being the handmaidens of corporate interests and the rich. He clearly was trying to set up a political passion play. But could eight weeks of assertive campaigning compensate for 20 months of mixed (or failed) messages?
It might have been too late to win back skeptical independents, but the president still urgently needed to rev up Democrats, who, according to polls, were far less eager to vote than Republicans. This underscores what may have been Obama's ultimate political error: not keeping the base energized and engaged in the narrative. A president cannot control the economy. But he can control the story he tells.