Speak Up! No, Shut Up!

Faulty presidential strategy as an evergreen story

For a political reporter with column inches to fill, the White House’s rhetorical stance toward Congress is a fail-safe subject. If the president is speaking out on the domestic-policy issue of the day, some strategist, senator, or self-styled expert will be prepared to say it’s time to shut up. And if he’s shutting up, someone can be found to say it’s time to speak out. The story writes itself!

Here’s how it works: throughout the dog days of August, as town hall tumult and death panel discussion dominated the health care narrative, the common complaint was that Barack Obama had not “taken ownership” of the debate, that he had allowed his top priority to get bogged down on Capitol Hill. The following passage from a Fox News story reflects the conventional wisdom at the time:

“I think the only way the president can turn the public debate around and win over a lot of scared, confused people is to put forward his own plan, and to spend the time and capital necessary to explain it,” said Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein. “There needs to be an Obama plan. … One of the biggest mistakes the president made was subcontracting this to Congress.”

The “Where’s Obama?” question was so prevalent that in early September, when the president delivered a televised address to a joint session of Congress, it was widely viewed as an effort to, at long last, stake out his territory: to answer questions not just about where he stood on health care, but about whether he could be the sort of forceful, assertive leader we need. The day after Obama’s speech, The New York Times published a “news analysis” that declared that the address “was about more than health care”:

It was an attempt by this still new president to display his authority to a Congress that had begun to question his fortitude, to show that he was as strong a political leader as he was a political candidate and to show that he was not — to use the shorthand of the day — another Jimmy Carter: professorial, aloof, a micromanager who perhaps was not ready to be the nation’s chief executive.

So—good for Obama, right? The skillfulness of his actions would still have to be judged, of course, but the president had done what everyone said he need to do: engage, publicly and forcefully, in the legislative process.

Or maybe not everyone. Today’s NYT carries a “White House Memo” that begins by noting that the president has again stepped back from the spotlight. And then it speculates on the wisdom of his earlier decision to assume a more public role:

But after his stream of all but nonstop public appearances on his top domestic priority, Mr. Obama’s health care hiatus raises some questions: Was his continued presence counterproductive? Might his high profile prove to have been too polarizing as Democratic leaders negotiate through a thicket of political considerations in search of a deal that can get through the House and the Senate? Did the president stop talking because the public had stopped listening?

A few answers to those questions are ventured. David Gergen—another “strategist”—warns, “He’s been in very great danger of people hitting the mute button when he comes on television to talk about health care.” And Ben Nelson, the conservative Democratic senator, adds: “I don’t know how much it helps, but it certainly doesn’t hurt the process to have him quiet.”

What to make of this? It is possible that all the criticism is correct—that Obama needed to be more vocal then, that he needs to be quieter now, and that in both cases the critics have caught wind of the public mood before the White House has.

But here’s an alternate explanation: there will always be somebody ready to criticize the president’s strategy for dealing with Congress. That is, in part, because other players—e.g., the conservative Ben Nelson—may not have the same interests, goals, or constituencies as the president, and thus may not see the strategic calculus in quite the same way (or, for that matter, want the president’s strategy to succeed in the first place). More fundamentally, it’s because the president’s strategy is, at any point in time, not likely to be showing dramatic signs of success. But that’s not because presidents are ineffectual—it’s because their ability to sway the public is, structurally, more limited than you’d think, and because getting ambitious social legislation through Congress is, by design, hard. (Lyndon Johnson had a knack for it, and his biographer Robert Caro has basically devoted his career to understanding how Johnson did it.)

This second-guessing of strategy suggests that there is always a “right” approach, when it’s not at all clear that that’s the case, and the focus on the president detracts attention from Congress, where the responsibility for shaping legislation really lies. But perhaps the biggest flaw in this evergreen story line is its predictability: if someone is always carping, what makes any particular criticism news?

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.