"Leading from behind" has left the president with low approval ratings, and the White House is now shifting its strategy
The White House, burned by failed efforts to work with Republicans and dismayed by a growing perception that President Obama is a weak leader, has made the decision to put more pressure -- and blame -- on Congress when Obama returns to Washington after his family vacation.
That represents a strategic shift for a president who burst onto the national scene in 2004 with a call for national unity and a condemnation of "those who are preparing to divide us." But it reflects a growing concern among the president's senior advisers that the battles over the past six months about Libya and Egypt and the debt ceiling have done serious damage to his leadership image.
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They do not want to risk letting that damage become permanent, according to two senior White House officials who asked not to be identified so they could speak frankly.
The first sign of the new strategy emerged on Monday night at the president's town-hall meeting in Decorah, Iowa. The very first question was a surprisingly pointed one from a woman who was there with her daughter. After noting that Obama had built "a tremendous amount of trust" during the campaign, she pressed him on why he had surrendered to Republicans on so many key points in negotiations over health care, taxes, and the national debt.
The president answered by acknowledging, "I've been getting a lot of this in the press lately." He then launched into a long reply that previewed what is to come after Labor Day. It is then, he said, that he will propose a "very specific plan" on the economy. And if Congress does not adopt it, "then we'll be running against a Congress that's not doing anything for the American people, and the choice will be very stark and will be very clear." He concluded his answer stating that "the other side is unreasonable. And you ... don't want to reward unreasonableness. Look, I get that."
If the president follows through on this new "get-tough" approach, it will be only after the pleadings of many outside Democratic strategists who have worried that repeated GOP attacks have combined with failed attempts at compromise to wound Obama politically. Even early in the debt-ceiling debate, it was clear that the president was sensitive about attacks on his leadership. "I've got to say, I'm very amused when I start hearing comments about, well, the president needs to show more leadership on this," he said at his June 29 press conference. He listed all the meetings he had convened, concluding, "Let's get it done."
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But no one in the White House is amused at the further deterioration of Obama's standing -- nor at the National Republican Senatorial Committee that turned that remark into a TV commercial mocking his leadership skills. The ad shows him playing ping-pong and drinking Guinness in an Irish pub while the screen scrolls "76 rounds of golf, 48 days of vacation, 149 fundraisers."
The decline in what one White House aide called "the leadership brand" is clear from the polling. In April 2009, Gallup found 73 percent of Americans who said that Obama was a "strong leader." In May 2010, that had declined to 60 percent. In March 2011, Gallup had it down to 52 percent. There has been no more recent polling on that issue, but aides fear that after Libya and the debt-ceiling debate, the number almost certainly has dropped again.
According to the two senior officials, the plan to arrest that decline is for Obama to no longer be seen as above the fray. While they believe Republicans were both wrong and unfair to claim the president had no plan to bring down the deficit, they know it hurt him. So they will try to show the president as having specific plans and then show him fighting for them. No more will the president be focusing primarily on issues that can attract bipartisan support and appeal to a Republican House. And no longer will he be so willing to let Congress work out the details on its own.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), is one who was particularly frustrated with the president's approach to Congress. In an interview this week with National Review Online, Simpson said, "One thing that's puzzled me from the beginning of this administration is that, on every major piece of legislation, he's said, 'Let Congress decide.' " Simpson said all other recent presidents understood that Congress wants to know what a president wants. "They always had a plan to show us."
To an important degree, this change in strategy is made easier by the deterioration of the president's trust in House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Three White House officials said the debt debate left that relationship in tatters, with the president deeply disappointed in Boehner's refusal to try to deliver Republican votes for a "grand bargain." The president saw himself as willing to challenge his party's activists and was dismayed when Boehner wouldn't, in the words of one official, "man-up" and take on his.
The biggest obstacle to this new strategy is that the president does not want to give up on the promise he first offered in that 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, the vision of coming "together as a single American family" uniting red America and blue America. The two senior officials said they still would like to cast the president as "the only adult in the room."
Another obstacle is that so much of the spotlight in the coming months will be on the super committee of 12 lawmakers who must come up with a debt solution. That committee intentionally omits the White House from its deliberations. The president could find himself with no influence on the cuts agreed to by the panel. "You can call the 12 people in and talk to them till you're blue in the face, but you have nothing to influence them," one official said.
Overshadowing all talk of strategy and tactics, of course, is the reality that the president's image is inextricably linked to the economy. If the economy improves, Obama's economic leadership will look stronger. If the recovery continues to stall, no tactical move can make him look stronger.
One veteran Democratic strategist said the White House can take some solace from history. "This is a not a permanent status in any way, shape or form," said pollster Mark Mellman. "It ebbs and flows with whatever the overall image of the president is. When things are going well, a president looks like a leader. And when they are not, he doesn't. People remember Ronald Reagan as a leader, but look at the numbers from 1982. Nobody thought he was much of a leader in 1982."
Image credit: Jason Reed/Reuters
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