In late June President Obama was talking about health-care reform and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." "For some reason," he told a press conference, "people keep being surprised when I do what I said I was going to do."
The reason for that surprise is simple. Obama and his staff have proven policy chops but are terrible at politics—they cannot, or will not, sell their ideas, especially in a sharp-elbowed partisan climate. It is a bizarre political universe in which the passage of health-care reform is actually being used to campaign against Democratic politicians.
The need for a shameless political consigliere in the Obama White House is counterintuitive because the Obama campaign was particularly effective in 2008 by avoiding the perception of being a hard-nosed political operation. But like his presidency, that victory was characterized by meticulous planning and a reliance on its leader's charisma. Instead of trying to set the agenda on the trail, Obama was consistently forced to mop up situations with searing speeches. He is still reactive, not proactive.
Which is a shame because, since he took office, his achievements are a marketer's dream. In less than two years, in addition to health-care reform, Obama has passed, or will pass, financial reform, a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," a monumental stimulus package—including $60 billion for renewable and clean energy—a hate-crimes-prevention act, and student-loan reform. He won the Nobel Peace Prize and signed a progressive nuclear-arms treaty with Russia.
And yet almost all those achievements have been spun into embarrassments for the administration. Death panels. Wall Street crony. Anti–Wall Street. Socialist takeover. Weakening the military. Which other White House has so consistently disguised victory as defeat? Which other recipient of the Nobel Prize has ever been forced to bury the news?
It happens because the administration leaves a vacuum for Sarah Palin and other Republicans to fill with disinformation on Facebook or Twitter. From the perspective of political craftsmanship, if arguing that your health-care policy won't kill grandmothers becomes a TV talking point, you have utterly failed to sell that policy. Indeed, today Mitt Romney—not noted for his ability to carry the national debate with his charisma—was able to tar the Russian nuclear treaty as Obama's "worst foreign-policy mistake yet," and a capitulation.
And when, as is inevitable, cabinet members have to defend a sound policy against such manifestly ludicrous suggestions, they will do so in a style that is uniquely Obama—wonkish, considered, and occasionally wry. When Obama assembled his cabinet, he put an emphasis on the objectively brilliant, like Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize–winning energy secrectary, not those with political moxie. Says one Democratic strategist who feared being banished from future consulting gigs for heresy: "None of them are big hitters who are going to call the other guys un-American on Meet the Press and set the debate in the right terms. I never thought I'd say this, but none of them is Dick Cheney or John Bolton."
Instead, Obama has figures like Joe Biden. Capable, well versed, quietly effective, and kind of cuddly. "We told you what we were going to do," Biden told Politico's Mike Allen today of the administration's unheralded successes in Iraq, "and we did it." He was half right.