08.25.11

Obama’s Team Is Blowing It

Independents hated the president’s debt deal, a new poll shows. Michael Tomasky on Obama’s lousy summer—and how David Plouffe and Bill Daley are letting him down.

We were told, as I recall, that Barack Obama had to seek a debt deal with the Republicans to please independent voters. Well, the independent voters are speaking, and they don’t appear to be especially appeased. There’s a new Gallup poll just out showing that independent voters hate the deal. Their views on it are far more similar to the GOP’s than to the Democratic Party’s.  Combine these data with the president’s approval numbers, which are swiftly heading south, and we have little choice but to conclude that this brilliant stratagem backfired. Isn’t it time for someone to say: this new White House political team is worse than the previous one?

First let me run you through the numbers. Americans disapprove of the deal by 46 to 39 percent. Democrats support it 58-28. Republicans oppose it 26-64. Independents oppose it 33-50. A second question asked of respondents: Was the deal a step forward or backward or neither with respect to “addressing the federal debt situation?” Democrats lined up 30-14-50. Republicans, 15-28-52. Independents, 16-25-50. Finally, independents also align more closely with Republicans on the question of whether the deal will have a good or bad effect on the economy.  Whereas 29 percent of Democrats think the effect will be good, just 12 percent of independents and 8 percent of Republicans believe that.

The White House strategy failed, and it failed pretty spectacularly. It reminds me that I’m hard pressed to think of a White House strategy that hasn’t failed in the last several months. The springtime budget negotiation, the one where a government shutdown was narrowly averted and Obama bragged about overseeing the biggest single-year domestic spending cut in history, was a failure too; a success, one supposes, in the sense that the government did not shut down, but another situation in which Obama’s back was pressed to the wall by congressional Republicans.

Let’s see, what else? The immigration speech from May? What, you don’t even remember it? If it was at least partly intended as a sop to Latino voters before the campaign really revs up, it seems to have left them largely unmoved—Obama is below 50 percent with Latinos in some surveys. OK, how about the more recent Midwestern jobs swing? Probably did no damage, but certainly did no good. The Vineyard vacation? I don’t begrudge the man a little R and R, and maybe it’s a small thing, but that destination—a bad symbol, Martha’s Vineyard. He might as well have gone to California wine country. Last I checked, there are golf courses aplenty to be found in North Carolina, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Colorado.

When David Axelrod left to go to the campaign office in Chicago, and Rahm Emanuel left to become mayor, the spin was that David Plouffe and Bill Daley, their respective replacements, would, if nothing else, bring fresh and unwearied perspectives to these admittedly grueling and thankless jobs. But they appear to have given Obama bad advice at nearly every turn. Plouffe, from what I can see, just looks to be in over his head in this job. He was a whiz at organizing a campaign field network. But this is a different game.

The spin was that David Plouffe and Bill Daley would, if nothing else, bring fresh perspectives to these admittedly grueling and thankless jobs. But they appear to have given Obama bad advice at nearly every turn.

The fundamental problem appears to be the excessive fixation on Obama’s (forgive me for even using this word) “brand”—this “adult in the room” nonsense. Whenever I see those words in print anymore, usually in a background quote from a White House aide or a Democratic source trying gamely to be on-message, I hear strong and unsettling echoes of the 2008-vintage messianism. Does anyone buy this anymore, outside of what appears to be an increasingly bubble-ized White House? Those beloved independents certainly aren’t thinking of the president that way these days, and one doubts that even most of his supporters are.

Obama’s brand is and has by now long been determined by events and facts, not by White House spin and set pieces, or by vestigial remnants of the Days of Hope. Those events and facts are almost uniformly grim (except Libya, whose political gains will be fleeting or perhaps nonexistent). Adults get credit when the household is running smoothly and the kids are well behaved and pulling good grades. With none of those things happening, the adult in the room is precisely the last thing to want to be. But they refuse to change gears.

Watching this White House over these last several weeks has been like watching a time-lapse video of an apple rotting. We’re supposed to believe now that the jobs plan to be announced next month will change everything. Maybe. But what needs to change is the way the White House approaches politics. To what? To a simple, blunt, and deeply real-world truth: He’s not nearly as bad as the other guys, who are crazy. That’s all he’s got. That’s his “brand” now. If his people keep insisting on trying to package him the way they did three years ago, he won’t have even that.