By Eugene Robinson
It’s ironic that President Obama could never be convincing as populist in chief. He had a modest upbringing—his family was on food stamps for a time—and he needed scholarships and loans to pay for his fancy education. He is no stranger to the struggles of everyday Americans.
By contrast, George W. Bush was born to Old Money and raised amid great wealth, privilege and power. Yet Bush was able to project an Everyman folksiness that made people forget his patrician heritage. Obama just doesn’t give off that guy-next-door vibe. Even if he were to roll up his sleeves, loosen his tie and start talkin’ like his predecessor, droppin’ his final g’s left and right, nobody would buy the act.
So I hope the White House pays no attention to the critics calling on Obama to cultivate a more populist image. Regaining the political initiative will be a matter of substance, not style—and also a matter of passion.
Bringing in David Plouffe, the architect of Obama’s brilliant election campaign, is a smart move that will surely help the president deliver his message more effectively. But part of that message has to be a clear sense of Obama’s bottom line. It’s not enough to use variations of the word “fight” more than 20 times in the course of relatively brief remarks, as he did Friday in Ohio. At some point, he needs to—metaphorically, of course—actually slug somebody.
I’m not talking about perceptions here. The point isn’t that Obama should be seen slapping opponents and obstructionists around as a way of demonstrating his presidential alpha-maleness. It’s that if Obama’s agenda is as vital and necessary as he says it is, the White House should make its actions match up with its words.
On health care, Obama told us for months how crucial a comprehensive reform package is to the nation’s well-being. If that was true when Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate, it’s still true now that they will have a mere 59. With Congress at an impasse, what is Obama’s next move? Acquiesce to starting over by holding “negotiations” with Republicans who have made clear their implacable opposition to reform? Or push forward with the Democratic congressional leadership, using every parliamentary maneuver in the book, even if it means suffering near-term political damage in the name of what is—according to the president—both necessary and right?
Similarly, the president can talk about jobs and the middle class all he wants, but the message won’t get through unless people believe his actions are commensurate with his words. He surely needs to do a better job of explaining the impact that last year’s massive stimulus bill has had in keeping people employed. It may be the case that he should push for more economic stimulus. It is definitely not the case that he should allow Republicans to stampede him and Congress into prematurely beginning to take action to rein in the deficit, because if the economy remains in the doldrums, it’s the Democrats who will be punished in November.
Obama’s promise to change how Washington works was a major reason he got elected. He has tried to stick to this pledge religiously—heedless of the fact that hereabouts, no good deed goes unpunished. On the stimulus, for example, Obama included a huge package of tax cuts as a gesture to Republicans, who turned up their noses and still voted no. Obama’s bipartisan tango can’t work if one party won’t dance.
Despite this outreach, Obama’s approval ratings have sagged. I’m convinced that this is because results count more than process. It’s true that voters are fed up with business as usual in Washington, but not for aesthetic reasons.
It doesn’t matter whether Obama speaks in a loud voice. What’s important is that he speak in a clear voice, a definitive voice. When he draws a line in the sand—about health care, jobs, energy, whatever—he should do everything in his power to defend that line, even if it means bruised feelings and ruffled feathers.
In the end, voters will respect Obama’s accomplishments, not his aspirations. They will reward his passion, not his polish. It’s fine for the president to tell Americans that he’s fighting on their behalf, as long as he remembers that what they really want is not so much for him to fight but to win.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group
White House / Pete Souza