President Obama’s Weak Reelection Message: Time for a New Theme

Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol on why Obama’s reelection message isn’t working.

Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

Call him a neo-post-partisan.

“There’s something wrong with our politics that we need to fix,” President Obama told an audience in Michigan this month. What is wrong, he said, is this: “Folks are playing political games.” Some in Congress, he complained, are putting party ahead of country. They are posturing, grandstanding, and constantly “bickering”—so much so, he says, that there is no point in calling them back into session until he and they have all had a good vacation. “The last thing we need,” the president said, “is Congress spending more time arguing in D.C.” In Obama’s view, politics is what’s wrong with our politics, and politics is what’s “keeping us back.”

And so, on this familiar note, begins the president’s campaign for reelection. The appeal to rise above partisan divisions is, for good reason, one of Obama’s greatest hits, and a lot of us liked the song when he first sang it at the 2004 Democratic convention, and again, with feeling, in the 2008 campaign. He ran, that year, as the antipolitical candidate, and brilliantly channeled our collective disgust with the way that Washington worked, as well as our collective hope, across most of the political spectrum, that it could work differently.

Today, however, it is a weary tune, and sounds more like a lament than a call to action. The president freely admits he is “frustrated” with politics, and we cannot be surprised. One of his frustrations with politics must be that he is not better at it. For this and other reasons, he would be well advised to find a new campaign theme—one that more accurately reflects what is happening in Washington, and that plays to his strengths and not his manifest weaknesses.

Surely his message “tests well,” in pollster parlance. Partisanship is probably even less popular than the partisans themselves, and that is really saying something. But Obama is no longer credible as an answer. The post-partisan era, such as it was, ended at noon on Jan. 20, 2009. The surest sign of its passing was the failure, barely one week later, of Obama’s sensible, moderate economic-recovery bill to win even a single Republican vote in the House. Rep. Eric Cantor, clearing his throat for the two and a half shrill years that have followed, denounced the stimulus as “a spending bill beyond anyone’s imagination.”

Today, at a time when President Obama has proved incapable of placating, cowing, or shaming Republicans like Cantor, it is impossible to imagine an end—even a pause—to partisanship. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, Obama declared war on partisanship in 2008, and partisanship won.

In this way, Obama’s renewed campaign against partisanship serves mainly to remind us of one of our, and no doubt his, greatest disappointments: the ugly immutability of Washington, and the Republicans’ stubborn refusal to listen to reason. As an opening argument for his reelection, the president can do better than “put country ahead of party.” Not only is it a weak, vain hope, it is a fundamental misreading of what’s wrong with Washington. To paraphrase, this time, Michael Dukakis (something I do against my better judgment), this election is not about partisanship. It’s about ideology.

Consider “this whole debt-ceiling debacle,” as the president calls it. What is the main reason that House Republicans drove the nation to the brink of default? As an exercise in point scoring, as Obama contends? Or, instead, as a sincere expression of their worldview, in all its delusional grandeur? Both explanations might be true, but the second one better captures what is happening in Washington and why.

The president, of course, has a point: Republicans certainly saw a chance to gain politically by manufacturing a crisis over the debt ceiling—a chance to make Obama look weak, to saddle him with an even lousier economy than the one he’s already got, and to blame him for the whole sorry business. But terms like “political games” do not begin to explain why Republican leaders kept pushing the country toward the cliff even when polls showed they would be blamed more than the president for the free fall, or why they kept pushing when a Pew poll showed that a large majority of Americans—including nearly half of Republicans—favored Obama’s “balanced” approach to deficit reduction, one that includes tax increases as well as spending cuts.

Why, then, did they keep pushing? Because congressional Republicans—and not just of the Tea Party variety—really do believe that government spending, even in a weak economy, kills rather than creates jobs; they really do believe that Washington is regulating businesses into a state of trembling uncertainty; they really do loathe taxes, social programs, and the federal government as much as they say they do. These are their articles of faith, their catechism. Yes, of course, it is threaded through with hypocrisy and outright duplicity. But Republicans actually believe most of the crazy things they say. And when they hold the economy hostage to their aims, they are surely quite convinced—no less than Obama—that they are putting country first.

So this election, like most elections, represents a clash of worldviews. It is time for the president to say so. To date, he has seemed reluctant to choose a side in the argument, preferring instead to float above the fray. He has barely hinted at the deep ideological chasm that divides the two parties. Last week, at a town-hall meeting in Iowa, he mentioned, in passing, “two contrasting visions,” but spent only two sentences sketching them out. This is not nearly enough, even at this early stage of the campaign.

President Obama does not need to become a fire-breathing, populist parody of Franklin Roosevelt, as some left-leaning critics suggest. But to win a second term he has to sharpen the contrast, if not his rhetoric. He has to make it unmistakably clear that the Republican Party’s “game”—its endgame—is not just to win the next election, but to undo much of the progress of the past century, and to rewrite some of our most cherished, basic assumptions about what it means to be an American. Then he needs to tell us what he plans to do about it.