Tone Deaf at the White House

If one were to imagine how to explain the expression "tone deaf" to a non-English speaker, it might be good to start by thinking about the Obama White House as viewed in this morning's edition of the Washington Post.

One might begin on the left-hand side of the Post op-ed page, with a column by Michael Gerson who notes that even as the president and his aides continue to profess their commitment to improving the economy -- "jobs, jobs, jobs", the mantra goes -- Mr. Obama has, in fact, been an omnipresent commentator on almost everything that transpires in America, but jobs least of all.

Gerson stops short of saying so, but one might conclude that the president has a fairly expansive view of his role in American life, feeling obliged to share with us his perspective on almost every happening in the 50 states. We have not yet been presented with bound copies of his "wit and wisdom" or collected aphorisms, but we're not yet halfway through his current term in office. The problem with this self-indulgence is not only that it conveys an exaggerated sense of self-importance, but that it also suggests a mind that is not as focused as one might hope. "Jobs, jobs, jobs" begins to seem more like an occasionally passing thought rather than an understanding of the current national hierarchy of problems.

On the right-hand side of the same oped page, Harold Meyerson describes the efforts of organized labor to pitch in on behalf of Obama's Democratic allies, striving mightily to hold on to at least one house of Congress. If one were to map out a strategy that would bring disaffected working class voters back from the brink of defection to Republicans, a focus on jobs and on identification with the struggles of ordinary citizens might be a good place to start. More and more American voters view themselves as Independents, unimpressed by appeals to party loyalty, and for many, common-sense proposals to get the economy moving again are a necessary precondition to any discussion about where one's vote might go.

Here, there is a serious disconnect between what the president and his allies have provided and what the majority of Americans seem to believe necessary. The Administration has pumped cash into the coffers of the well-off, keeping their mismanaged auto companies and financial institutions afloat (and the bonuses flowing), rather than undertaking steps to increase the bottom-line solvency of the working man and woman. Economies prosper when ordinary citizens have money to spend. Tax cuts may be anathema to the ideological preconceptions of the president and his allies, but this is a moment to put ideology on hold and do what it takes to get Mr. and Mrs. Citizen back to Wal-Mart, Sears, and the local auto dealer.

But the Gerson and Meyerson articles both lead to a serious question: just what is going on in the president's head? Back to a definition of "tone deaf."

Gerson and Meyerson gave us opinion, but there was actual news -- big news -- today, also featured in the Post, only pages away from the Gerson and Meyerson commentaries. The White House, immediately after the President's return from Martha's Vineyard, announced -- ta-da -- an extensive remodeling of the Oval Office: a new rug, new drapes, a new coffee table.

None of this was charged to the taxpayers and in recent years it has become customary for each new president to redesign the Oval Office to fit his own sensitivities and tastes. But perception matters.  This comes in the middle of a serious, and growing, economic calamity, with people out of jobs and home prices in a free fall. It is not reassuring, and probably not beneficial politically, to now see that as he golfed on the Vineyard, the president was focused on color schemes.

Presented by

Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In