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11.01.10

Obama's Morning-After Plan

As Tuesday’s drubbing ends, Barack Obama needs to embrace the theatrics of the presidency, however cheesy that may seem to him.

One thing I hope Obama dumps when the Wednesday morning hangover dawns: all that talk of changing Washington. A president who thinks he can change Washington is as misguided as a new studio head thinking he can change Hollywood. He may say he’s arrived to foster new ideas and adapt the great novels he was raised on, but he will still wind up doing Pirates of the Caribbean IV or succumbing to some bollixed-up development process that ends in tears or  a frightful Nicolas Cage movie.

Voters seem to understand what a big waste of time trying to change Washington is. After a brief love affair with the new possibilities Obama represented in the 2008 campaign, the electorate has turned its attention elsewhere to try to get things done—to makeshift projects developed by enterprising mayors, or by joining the Tea Party movement, or turning to comedians to express their point of view en masse, or forging private public partnerships to spawn social innovation that has as little as possible to do with the local congressman they hate.

Obama has, as he wanly insists, accomplished a lot in the last two years—ended torture, got us out of Iraq, extended health care, and prevented another Great Depression, all with absolutely no help and nothing but obstruction from the people who are about to collect the big political rewards. Which is why it irritated me to find him observing in Peter Baker’s excellent profile in the October 17 New York Times magazine: “I think anybody who’s occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection of policy and politics and that you can't be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.” Roger to that. Amazing that Obama, possessed of the bully pulpit of the presidency, is musing here about having forgotten as core a political value as bringing the public along.

As from Wednesday, I’d like the president  to stop being so high-minded about avoiding corny symbolic theatrics and start playing to win. The absurd myth, for instance, that he's really a Muslim would be easier to knock out if he strode from the White House every Sunday with a big old Gutenberg Bible and marched his family—with the first daughters in adorable Sunday best—to the nearest Episcopalian church.  Back in his Chicago Senate days, when he was seeking greater black credibility, Obama was happy enough to attend the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ. What’s wrong with a bit of God-fearing symbolism of a different kind now? There was a reason Hillary Clinton showed up at the weekly Senate Prayer Breakfasts when she was trying to network across the  aisles. “Worshipping in private,” as Obama does, comes off as just another form of annoying elitism.

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And then there is the vaunted fury of the business world. Some of that is stoked by dissing so many of its big ego’d leaders. When Obama has them over to the White House, he should at least scratch his chin and pretend to listen to their views on the economy, instead of, as one brand-name entrepreneur told me recently, seeming “to be just checking the box.”  When the Business Roundtable came over to moan it didn’t endear them that he read a speech about the economy at them, then pissed off without glad-handing. Until Warren Buffett’s visit to the White House in July, the seer of Omaha, who endorsed Obama before he became president, hadn’t been asked back in 18 months to give his views on the dire state of the job market. That’s rude as well as clueless. The guy knows a thing or two about  finance. Obama may think that donors who pout if they don’t get perks beyond the satisfaction of knowing they’re helping their country are jerks, but social access, as Bill Clinton knew all too well, is a golden tool. A night in the Lincoln Bedroom is a better deal for the public than a zillion-dollar rich guy tax break or a fat no-bid contract, which is what the Republicans offer.

On the cultural-symbolic front, Obama has failed too to make the grand gesture—think of how meek his concert-and-arts initiatives have been, compared to the ones Jackie Kennedy foisted on Jack. It's strange to have a great writer-president mum on the arts.

I’ve never understood why Obama didn’t say that we’ve come to the end of the carnival of spectacle and selfishness, and need to return to a republic of sanity and citizenship. And then give honors to ordinary folks who have been good citizens first.

Rather than look with disdain at what the Democrats seem to see as the vulgar theatrics of the Tea Party or try to capture the youth vote with an onslaught of cable comedy shows, Obama should go broad, not niche; megaphone, not dog whistle. Big gestures with a halo effect.

Along with all those books about Lincoln, Obama might read some biographies of Napoleon. The general who established the Legion d’Honneur understood that people fought as much for medals as for morals.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown .