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.
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.