Saturday, September 17, 2011

It's About Jobs--Obama's Failing Quest for Reelection

President Obama gave a jobs speech about a week ago and it was clear that the job he is most worried about is his. Offering an anemic job proposal that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats in Congress find appealing, Obama is in political trouble, with a 60/40 chance that he will not get reelected. Why such dismal prospects?

Obama was a brilliant campaigner. He understood the basic rule of politics for how to get elected, yet as president and now in seeking reelection, he just does not seem to get it. What are these rules of politics? For our purposes, four rules are critical.

The first is that politics is like selling beer. By that, politics and political success are contingent upon developing a powerful narrative. Narratives are stories–they are stories that explain who you are as a candidate, what you hope to accomplish as president, what your view of the world is. Narratives are rhetorical and persuasive tools to convince voters to support you. Moreover, good narratives are positive and look to the future. Great example of past narratives are Reagan’s “Morning in America,” Clinton morphing Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow” into a campaign mantra, and even Obama’s 2008 “Change we can believe in.” All were inspirational.

But where is Obama’s narrative now? The problem is he has no narrative. In 2010, the Democrats went down to defeat because either they had no narrative or at best, their narrative was “It could have been worse.” The latter, in reference to claims that had Obama not acted with the stimulus and Dodd-Frank the economy could have been worse. Such a narrative was neither inspirational not compelling. It died in the face of the a brilliant Republican narrative stolen from Obama in 2008–change.

The narrative again in 2012 for the Republicans will be change. Obama still lacks a narrative. His speech on jobs last week was an effort to cast himself with a narrative that it is “the economy stupid” and that he cares more about it than the Republicans. So far, that new narrative is not working.

The second rule of politics is mobilize your base. It is imperative to nail down your political base if running for office. You need to get them behind you, excited, and mobilized. Politics begins with dueling bases. If your base stays home and the other shows up, you are in trouble. As Woody Allen correctly stated: “Ninety percent of life is showing up.”

Obama’s base is eroding. Recent NY Times polls show that the unions, white working class, the young, and the liberals in his party are discouraged, and disappointed with Obama. It is for good reason–he blew them off too many times. He continuously gives into the Republicans instead of fighting for what his base wants. Somehow Obama the law professor believes that everyone will be reasonable and willing to compromise. It takes two to tango and only one side is dancing. Moreover, Obama consistently blew off supporters–stating that they had to wait on don’t ask don’t tell, gay marriage, changing rule son unionization, or dealing with the environment. He has told his supporters he has bigger fish to fry and that they must wait. Bad moves. The best way to disappoint supporters is to raise their expectations and then dash them.

The third rule is that politics is a bar fight. Fights in bars are won or lost by the ability to capture the audience to your side. In politics, this means the battle is for the swings. Even if each side mobilizes its political base, that does not guarantee victory because neither the Democrats not Republicans represent 50% +1 of the voters. Neither party has majority status. The battle is thus to capture the swing voters and states. Among voters, the suburban moms and moderates are the swings.

Obama’s new strategy is to refine himself as the moderate centrist, seeking to show he is reasonable and the Republicans are not. Obama’s job speech, his efforts to compromise on the debt deal, and so much more recently have been efforts to do this. Yet the efforts to create this new narrative have failed. He has failed to capture the swings, but luckily for him, the same is true for the Republicans.

Obama has failed to capture the swings because of his inability to propose economic plans deep and broad enough to really stimulate the economy and produce jobs. He has failed to address the mortgage crisis that continues to depress real estate prices, sales, and personal wealth. And he has done nothing to reinvigorate consumer demand. His jobs proposal was anemic and failed because it did not offer solutions to these problems. As so aptly stated by several small business owners at a talk to the Twin Cities West Chamber of Commerce: “Tax cuts will not encourage me to hire anyone. So long as no one wants to buy my products I have no reason to hire anyone and tax cuts are not going to change that.”

Finally, Obama has forgotten a fourth rule of politics–Rod Stewart is right--It’s about passion (in reference to a song he wrote many years ago). Passionate people are motivated and will vote and give money vote. They will show up. Obama seems to assume a dispirited base has nowhere to go but back to him. He banks on this and tries to appeal to swings (and a miserable Republican candidate) to pave his way to victory in 2012. However, a lethargic base and an inability to capture swing voters with an uninspiring narrative is certainly not a winning formula. Combine all this with 9% unemployment and a probable double-dip recession and that result is one more ex-president out of work.

In all fairness, the one thing Obama has going for him is that the Republican field is equally horrible. Perry and Bachmann are unappealing to swing voters and they lack any real plan for the economy and the nation. Romney is bland and boring and his narrative has failed to captivate, and Congress’ approval rating is 12%. The choices are bad, making it not much of a surprise that a third of the voters want a viable third party and many want to see other candidates run for president.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Democrats need a challenger to Obama. They need an alternative to force the president to fight for his base and galvanize them. Obama needs to work for his party vote, he needs to define himself, he needs to learn how to fight. He has failed to do all of that so far, questioning both whether he deserves his party nomination and whether he can win reelection.

(Cartoon courtesy of the New Yorker Magazine.)


  1. Excellent Analysis, David.

    My own experience from working inside a gubernatorial administration leads me to a few observations. Political executives, as talented as they may be in policy, fundraising, and coalition building, are all severely weakened without a strong circle of key advisors to serve as the executive’s backbone. The most critical of those advisors is a steely and driven chief of staff. We had such a team in the Richardson Administration in New Mexico and the governor’s first term was a success with them at his side.

    In the president’s first two years Rahm Emanuel provided the strategic planning as chief of staff. David Axelrod as senior advisor provided the narrative. And Robert Gibbs as spokesman articulated the narrative with skill. Since the transition away from these men, the president appears spineless, driftless, and hapless.

    Want evidence? I submit the decision to schedule the “jobs speech” on the same night as the GOP presidential debates and then the subsequent decision to reschedule the speech during the opening night of the NFL season. Dare I say, that never would have happened with Emanuel and Axelrod still in the White House.

    History tells us what superior senior leadership can do for a president and his narrative. Ronald Reagan was exponentially more effective with Howard Baker and James Baker as chiefs than he was with Donald Regan. Bill Clinton’s first term gained tremendously more focus with Leon Panetta as chief. In fact, former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson spins a great yarn about how effective Panetta was as White House Chief of Staff in setting the agenda and dealing with policy.

    In fact, you have to wonder if among one of Obama’s primary mistakes in recent months wasn’t making Panetta his chief instead of secretary of defense. If he had, might the president’s narrative and passion be different?

  2. Tim:
    Chief of staff makes a huge difference and Obama more so now than ever seems rudderless. Panetta would have brought focus to his administration, providing someone who could actually manage the office of the presidency. As the new book on Obama by Suskind points out, Obama's inexperience clearly is coming through and is becoming more evident daily.

  3. I think Rahm was responsible for Obama's dismal performance. Remember when he said: "F%^K" the UAW during the auto industry negotiations? I do. Rahms attitude towards progressives was something like: "thanks for the votes guys but the adults are back in charge now". Mediocrity is the keystone of DNC ideology. The problem is it's neither inspiring politically, or effective as a problem solving strategy.

    The problem David points to is huge, and bigger than he may realize. Obama now has a huge trust issue, even if he comes up with a narrative at this point, I don't trust him to follow through. This guy just imploded, it's like he doesn't have a clue. He went into his first term with all the advantages he could have hoped for and he blew it because he decided working with his opposition would more productive than working with his base. This was classic DNC triangulation, and it blew up in his face. The reason I supported Obama over Clinton was I thought Obama was less likely to triangulate than Clinton... I was wrong.