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.
But maybe the most problematic aspect of Obama's statement is that it seems to reveal him as the same starry-eyed community organizer he was when he came in. After all he's been through -- the obstructionism, the big-ticket failures (such as climate-change legislation), the breaches of faith -- he still seems to believe that Washington is susceptible to the wishes of the people at large. He seems to think it is not, in fact, so irredeemably gridlocked and calcified that no amount of popular will can shake it. The debt-ceiling fight in particular seemed to have disabused Obama of the illusion that politicians of good faith, acting in their own self-interest and that of their constituents, would naturally come together to resolve urgent problems. That the negotiations instead disintegrated into such a messy debacle seemed to have taught Obama a harsh lesson: You can't win in Washington without rolling up your sleeves and getting down in the mud.
You often hear Democrats pining for an Obama more in the mold of LBJ -- a horse-trading legislative master who got things done by hook or by crook, the opposite of the aloof Obama. Ugly as it is, this line of thinking goes, you have to play the inside game. Remaining above the fray, as Obama tends to do, just doesn't work. This is one of Romney's strongest arguments -- that rather than making excuses about the other side not being willing to work with him, he'll find ways to bring Republicans and Democrats together and get things done. Unfortunately for Romney, he doesn't propose any concrete ways of doing that, and his track record in Massachusetts, where legislators recall him as removed from the process, doesn't lend the idea much credence.
As Obama prepared to speak at the Democratic National Convention a couple of weeks ago, the New York Times' Jodi Kantor tweeted this:
In this speech, I wish Obama would answer my foremost question about his presidency: What has he learned?— jodikantor (@jodikantor) September 7, 2012
Her wish went unfulfilled. It was, once you noticed it, a stunning omission. Obama jokes about his gray hairs and talks frankly about the waning of the promise he once represented: Eight years after he first trumpeted a message of hope, he said in his speech, "that hope has been tested by the cost of war, by one of the worst economic crises in history and by political gridlock that's left us wondering whether it's still even possible to tackle the challenges of our time." But he doesn't talk about how the job has changed him. And if he still believes that Washington can be persuaded to enact his agenda through mass mobilization, continuing to ignore the inside game, maybe it hasn't. If he wins a second term, we'll find out whether he's right.