If he still believes "you can't change Washington from the inside," the president hasn't mastered the art of getting things done in the Capitol.
President Obama made a supposedly shocking admission on Thursday: "You can't change Washington from the inside," he said in an interview on the Spanish-language Univision network. Mitt Romney immediately pounced, charging Obama with admitting that his whole project was a failure. If Washington can't be changed from the inside, what's the point of being president? "His slogan was 'yes we can' -- his slogan now is 'no I can't,'" Romney told a rally in Sarasota, Florida. "This is time for a new president. He went from the president of change to the president who can't get change."
The Obama campaign responded that Romney was "taking the president's words wildly out of context," and that's true. But the point Obama was really making should still be troubling. If he really meant what he said -- that politicians can be most effective by looking outside the Beltway bubble -- he revealed he's learned nothing in his bruising four years in office.
Here is the full answer Obama gave, in response to a question about his biggest failure:
Obviously the fact that we haven't been able to change the tone in Washington is disappointing. We know now that as soon as I came into office you already had meetings among some of our Republican colleagues saying, how do we figure out how to beat the president. And I think that I've learned some lessons over the last four years, and the most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside. That's how I got elected, and that's how the big accomplishments like health care got done, was because we mobilized the American people to speak out. That's how we were able to cut taxes for middle-class families. So something that I'd really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people so that they can put pressure on Congress to help move some of these issues forward.
Contra Romney, Obama is not throwing in the towel, but is rather laying out a plan of action for a hypothetical second term -- one in which he engages the public more in the legislative process. Notice, though, that even as he's saying he needs to start doing that, he also claims he's done it already. A lot of Democrats would surely disagree with the idea that Obama created a mass movement around health care; most feel he lost control of the bill by handing it off to the Senate. And rather than aggressively mobilize his supporters, Obama largely allowed the grassroots organization he'd created for his campaign to languish.