St. Patrick’s Day 2013, at the White House

George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
March 14, 2014, 9:05 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama can be ex­cused if he feels frus­trated by his low poll num­bers and de­clin­ing polit­ic­al for­tunes. After all, he was so cer­tain he knew what voters were say­ing when they gave him 53 per­cent of their vote just 23 months ago. And those same voters today are so down­right un­grate­ful for his ef­forts.

As White House aides are quick to point out, most of what he’s done as pres­id­ent are things he prom­ised in the cam­paign. So the angst in­side the White House is palp­able, start­ing in the Oval Of­fice. Nowhere was that more in evid­ence than in the pres­id­ent’s re­cent in­ter­view with Rolling Stone magazine. Tick­ing off his ac­com­plish­ments, he some­what poignantly ad­ded, “You look at all this and you say, ‘Folks, that’s what you elec­ted me to do.’”

Not ex­actly.

You can do what you prom­ised and still trig­ger voter un­hap­pi­ness. It is not that Obama has broken prom­ises or done things at vari­ance with his cam­paign prom­ises. It is that he did not seem to grasp that all prom­ises are not cre­ated equal. Like most pres­id­ents, he mis­read his man­date.

“What the pres­id­ent ran on and what the pres­id­ent has done is tackle the is­sues that for years and years and years we had put off,” said White House press sec­ret­ary Robert Gibbs. All true. “But,” as Gibbs ac­know­ledged, “you over­lay everything go­ing on with 9.6 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment and 8 mil­lion jobs lost.”

Where White House strategists per­suaded them­selves that they had a man­date to over­haul the na­tion’s health care sys­tem im­me­di­ately, many voters saw a sim­pler, two­fold man­date — fix the eco­nomy first and don’t be George W. Bush.

Obama, of course, is not the first pres­id­ent to stumble on in­ter­pret­ing his man­date. Nobody was ever blunter about the feel­ings that wash over a win­ning can­did­ate than Bush was after he won a nar­row re-elec­tion in 2004 with un­der 51 per­cent of the vote.

“After hun­dreds of speeches and three de­bates and in­ter­views and the whole pro­cess, where you keep ba­sic­ally say­ing the same thing over and over again, that when you win, there is a feel­ing that the people have spoken and em­braced your point of view,” Bush told re­port­ers two days after his vic­tory, adding that “the people made it clear what they wanted.” He con­cluded, “I earned cap­it­al in the cam­paign, polit­ic­al cap­it­al, and now I in­tend to spend it.”

But Bush totally mis­read his man­date and wasted his “cap­it­al” on a fruit­less cam­paign for privat­iz­a­tion of So­cial Se­cur­ity while the eco­nomy slipped in­to re­ces­sion and the Ir­aq War went in­to over­drive. Not sur­pris­ingly, the pres­id­ent’s pop­ular­ity plunged.

Sev­en dec­ades earli­er, Frank­lin D. Roosevelt was flush after scor­ing the biggest elect­or­al vic­tory in Amer­ic­an his­tory. But even win­ning 98.5 per­cent of the elect­or­al votes didn’t mean what Roosevelt thought it did as he launched his second term. Only two months after his big win, he suffered an em­bar­rass­ing de­feat when he tried to “pack” the Su­preme Court.

For Obama, the mis­take was seem­ing to put something — any­thing — high­er on his pri­or­ity list than fix­ing the eco­nomy. “He came in­to of­fice with two agen­das — the agenda of choice that he ran on and the agenda of ne­ces­sity that eco­nom­ic events forced on him,” said Wil­li­am Gal­ston, Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s do­mest­ic policy ad­viser. The mis­take, he said, was “not re­cog­niz­ing that he had to ad­just, that he couldn’t put the ped­al to the met­al and do both flat out, which is what he tried.”

He also erred in his mes­sage, nev­er really stick­ing to one theme and jump­ing from one meas­ure to an­oth­er without sat­is­fy­ing pub­lic de­mands for a fo­cus on jobs.

“It is not that the ad­min­is­tra­tion over-in­ter­preted its man­date; it was just that they didn’t stay clear with that ba­sic mes­sage and theme,” said Robert Borosage, co-dir­ect­or of the lib­er­al Cam­paign for Amer­ica’s Fu­ture. “I don’t think they’re be­ing pun­ished be­cause of ef­forts on health care or en­ergy. I think they’re be­ing pun­ished be­cause the eco­nomy sucks, banks got bailed out, bil­lions were bor­rowed, and the pres­id­ent didn’t have a clear mes­sage.”

Obama’s im­pa­tience to get to health care proved polit­ic­ally con­fus­ing. “He presen­ted the stim­u­lus as if it was the an­swer and then went on to oth­er things,” lamen­ted Borosage. Obama con­fused voters, he said, by shift­ing so quickly from fix­ing the eco­nomy to talk of de­fi­cit re­duc­tion. “That suc­ceeded in mak­ing Amer­ic­ans think the pres­id­ent didn’t have a clear idea of what he was try­ing to do,” he said.

Obama’s prob­lems were deepened by the un­pop­ular­ity of what voters saw when they did see him work on the eco­nomy.

“The White House had a the­ory about how it would go from strength to strength be­cause suc­cess would build on suc­cess,” said Gal­ston. “But it didn’t work out that way be­cause in or­der for it to work, the first steps have to be pop­u­lar to cre­ate the pre­dic­ate for the next steps. And that con­di­tion wasn’t ful­filled.”

Obama had talked much about FDR but missed one of the les­sons of his first two years. “The first steps that Frank­lin Roosevelt took were pop­u­lar and seen to work very quickly and lance the boil. So he was able to go from strength to strength,” said Gal­ston, not­ing as well that FDR waited two years be­fore veer­ing from the eco­nomy and in­tro­du­cing So­cial Se­cur­ity. “He un­der­stood that there is a se­quence of things; that he first had to sta­bil­ize the eco­nomy and re­store at least a modic­um of pub­lic con­fid­ence.”

Amid all the com­par­is­ons between Obama and FDR that the White House en­cour­aged in early 2009, that is one les­son this White House, to its per­il, simply missed.

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