Ethics & Public Policy Center

President Obama: Channeling His Inner Agnew

Published in Politics Daily on February 4, 2010



According to Politico, President Obama's back is against the wall, so he's “getting in touch with his inner [Spiro] Agnew, hitting the neo-nattering nabobs of cable and the Net.” “If we could just — excuse the press — turn off the cameras,” he told Democratic senators at their annual retreat. “Turn off your CNN, your Fox, your MSNBC, your blogs, turn off this echo chamber . . . where the topic is politics . . . We've got to get out of the echo chamber. That was a mistake I made last year — not getting out of here [Washington].”

This is now of a piece. At virtually every stop he's made along the way since Republican Scott Brown's stunning victory in the Massachusetts Senate race, Obama has been frantically trying to recapture the magic of his campaign — to the point that he's bringing back into the fold operatives like David Plouffe.

The president is attempting once again to hover above us, to portray himself as serious and thoughtful, high-minded and reflective, post-partisan and trans-political. In this telling of the tale, the problems he made in his first year had nothing to do with his agenda; it had everything to do with not rising above the echo chamber. He had a communications problem. He didn't get out of Washington enough.

It goes even deeper than that, in the mind of Obama and much of the political class. “As the president wrapped up his State of the Union address on Wednesday night with an appeal to transcend partisan gamesmanship,” Richard Stevenson wrote in The New York Times, “he was plaintively testing a broader proposition: Is it possible to embrace complexity in a political and media culture that demands simple themes and promotes conflict?” Stevenson continued:

The president, whose hallmark has been ideological eclecticism, would clearly like to think the answer is yes. But a year into his presidency, Mr. Obama has lost control of his political narrative, his ability to define the story of his presidency on his own terms. And the main reason is that his story is no longer so simple or easy to tell.

Andrew Sullivan, writing in the Sunday Times of London, amplified on this theme:

On Tuesday night Obama stood between them all, like a teacher entering a classroom with spit balls flying and desks crashing. He cannot discipline; he does not have the constitutional power to dictate to Congress what it must do, and he is also determined to reverse the imperial style of presidency that has corroded the constitutional balance in the past few decades and especially the past few years. There is no headmaster to send the children to — just an argument that certain things simply have to be done . . . I do not know if Americans will respond to Obama's reasoning, or if the short-term political posturing will dissipate. In the depressed economic climate, where tempers are high and anxiety is endemic, the odds of Obama succeeding seem remote.

Of course. If Obama fails it is because we were not up to the challenge of responding to his eclectic reasoning. Aristotle ain't for everyone. The adolescent spit ball throwers and desk crashers may prevail against the forces of light and goodness.

It turns out The Great Synthesizer's message is too sophisticated, too deep and subtle, for the common folk. Apparently the blogs, online news sites (like this one, presumably), and cable networks are warping and disfiguring the complicated and intricately balanced Obama proposals: neither left nor right, liberal nor conservative, Democratic nor Republican. It was Obama — and Obama alone — he told us during the campaign, who would “cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past.” Under Obama we would see “A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again.”

The problem with all this is it turned out to be a campaign ornament, a mirage, a cynical (if extremely well executed) ploy. Obama's problem isn't that he didn't get out of Washington enough; it is that he wants to concentrate unprecedented powers in Washington. It is that in a center-right nation our president, himself a person of thoroughly liberal beliefs, outsourced his agenda to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

The president's difficulties have nothing to do with the “echo chamber;” it has to do with the liberal and in some respects, the radical substance of his ideas. It is his actions — systematic, premeditated, and philosophically misguided — that have caused him and his party so much damage in so short a period of time. And until Obama understands that — until he quits blaming the New Media, or Washington, or his predecessor — he cannot possibly recover.

“Human kind,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “cannot bear very much reality.” That appears to be triply the case for America's 44th president. He is in a trance. Those who care for him, and his presidency, better break him out of it. And soon.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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