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Why Does Obama Think 'Politicking' Is a Dirty Word?

President Barack Obama's address to the nation on Iraq this week underscores the agony of his presidency, and its core political problem. Seen from the inside, the administration is an astonishing success. Obama has kept his principal promises and can take credit for achievements that eluded his Democratic predecessors.

He pledged to have all combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this month and, as Obama will remind us on Tuesday, he's accomplished just that. Congress enacted a comprehensive health-care bill and a sweeping reform of how the financial system is regulated. His rescue of the American auto industry worked, foiling predictions that he'd run GM and Chrysler as if they were arms of Chicago's Democratic machine. There are many other legislative and administrative actions that, in normal circumstances, would loom larger if these were not such exceptional—and difficult—times.

Yet the challenging nature of the times does not explain all the president's struggles. It's true that his accomplishments will have important long-term effects, even if they have not resolved the country's central concern: the continuing sluggishness of the economy.

But Obama and his party are also in a hole because the president has chosen not to engage the nation in an extended dialogue about what holds all his achievements together, or why his attitude toward government makes more sense than the scattershot conservative attacks on everything Washington might do to improve the nation's lot.

There was a revealing moment in early August when Obama told an audience at a Texas fundraiser: "We have spent the last twenty months governing. They spent the last twenty months politicking." Referring to the impending elections, he added: "Well, we can politick for three months. They've forgotten I know how to politick pretty good."

Obama's mistake is captured by that disdainful reference to "politicking." In a democracy, separating governing from "politicking" is impossible. "Politicking" is nothing less than the ongoing effort to persuade free citizens of the merits of a set of ideas, policies, and decisions. Voters feel better about politicians who put what they are doing in a compelling context. Citizens can endure setbacks as long as they believe the overall direction of the government's approach is right.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a genius at offering such reassurances, which is why his fireside chats are the stuff of political legend. Ronald Reagan never stopped campaigning for his conservative vision because he was determined to leave behind a thriving conservative movement. Roosevelt and Reagan both changed the country's underlying philosophical assumptions.

Despite occasional forays into this realm, Obama has created the impression that he is taking things one decision at a time, without a passion for how he would like the country to look in the long run.

He and his party are often defensive when it comes to saying what they really believe: that government, well executed, is a positive good; that too much economic inequality is both dysfunctional and unjust; that capitalism has never worked without regulation and a strong dose of social insurance. They no longer dare talk about public enterprise, a phrase my friend Chris Matthews reminded me of recently, visible in our great state universities, our best public schools, our road and transit systems, and in the research and development that government finances in areas where there is no immediate profit to be made.

The Obama press office, I know, can send me speeches where he has made some of these points. But the president's efforts to lay down a consistent rationale, argument and philosophy have been sporadic. He has created a vacuum, filled by the wild charges of Glenn Beck, the disappointment of progressives who emphasize what he hasn't done, and the tired "government is always the problem" rhetoric of his mainstream conservative opponents. He has thus left himself and his Democratic allies with weak defenses against a tide of economic melancholy.

It is too late to turn this election into a triumph for the administration, but not too late to salvage his party's congressional majorities. Given dismal Democratic expectations, that would now be rated as a victory. But doing so will require Obama to think anew about what "politicking" really means, to pick more than tactical fights with his adversaries, and to lay out, without equivocation or apology, where he is trying to move the country. It's just too bad he didn't start earlier. 

(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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I don't see why it's so difficult to fathom that Obama is, like the people with whom he surrounds himself, a corporate technocrat.  He has a deep and abiding fondness for the educational and corporate meritocracies that provide capitalism with its elites.  He thinks like them, E. J.  That's why he's disdainful of "politicking," and why he favors "bi-partisanship" over partisan politics.  Genuine politics upsets the ideological basis of his presidency:  reliance on well-educated, allegedly "disintereseted" experts, almost all of whom have never repudiated the neo-liberal political economics of the last three decades.  At the same time, his foreign policy, especially in Afghanistan, indicates that he really accepts the imperial mandate the U. S. has given itself for the last century or so.  So we already know where he wants to move the country:  into a kinder, gentler corporate regime.  (It's a fantasy, of course.)  He's not even the mild progressive you and other liberals thought he was.  His campaign was a model of faith-based politics -- for liberals.  When are the scales going to fall from your eyes, E. J.?           

The rhetoric of the far right will probably always outgun the rhetoric of the left because to be a liberal means that, although you hold a clearly defined set of beliefs, intellectually you have to confront the fact that you do not have all the answers. The right is unencumbered by intellectual honesty. Hence, the best and brightest of the right will wink, if not support, death panels, birthers, Obama is a Nazi, etc.

I have always felt that, as a group, both the wealthy and the poor vote their real interests, For the wealthy- keep my taxes low no matter what. For the poor, keep my programs going. The real genius of the right wing has not just been to keep the focus of the middle class on so-called "values" issues, some of which are real. No, the subtler goal has been to convince the middle class that they have much more in common with the rich than the poor. With 401Ks imploding, housing values collapsing, and jobs shipped overseas, I would think the middle class would figure out the hollowness of conservative thought as applied to them. But, mirabile dictu, it hasn't happened and is no where on the horizon.


"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity (Yeats)" seems to sum up our age.

I remember your book, E.J. "They Only Look Dead- Why Progessives will Dominate the Next Era" We can only hope. Maybe they really are dead.

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