Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Narrativewatch: "Barack Obama has lost focus"

I think it’s safe to say that there is a new narrative on President Obama: that he is trying to do too much when he should be focussing his efforts on stabilising the financial system.

Of course, this is not what the president is telling us. But one of the main rules of narratives is that politicians don’t get to decide what they are.

Mr Obama is being criticised for trying to act quickly on the wider agenda of healthcare reform, new investment in education and tackling carbon emissions -- and for trying to suggest that are all part of a plan for long-term prosperity.

The new narrative is well summarised in a major article in the latest issue of TIME, which starts off:

"Barack Obama's big reform agenda won't get off the ground unless he fixes the banks first. The case for doing one thing at a time."

Without endorsing it, the FT’s Clive Crook has summed up the new “conventional wisdom” about President Obama: “he has far taken on far too much” and may outstrip the system’s capacity – administrative, legislative and political – to deliver.

It should come as no surprise that conservatives are telling this “lack of focus” story. They oppose President Obama and have no truck with his policies. See, for instance, George Will on the president’s economic plans and Michael Barone’s (weird) views about global warming.

But some Obama supporters are also calling on the president to focus on the economy – or, in some cases, to avoid embarking on an FDR-style New Deal too quickly, in order to avoid a policy car crash.

Warren Buffett has accused the administration of having “muddled messages” on the economy.

David Brooks, a “moderate” writer for the New York Times, has said of the Obama administration: “I fear that in trying to do everything at once, they will do nothing well.”

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius has called on the president to avoid “financial giantism” and to focus on “reconstructing our broken financial system.

The risks of overload shouldn’t be brushed aside. Michael Galston, writing last week in the liberals’ house journal, the New Republic, made another case for caution. He drew a number of distinctions between the situation faced by Barack Obama and Franklin D. Roosevelt, a previous president facing a depression, and trying to take forward a big political agenda. Galston reminded us that FDR concentrated on fixing the financial system and delayed unrelated structural reforms until he was sure that he had Congress and the public onside. He concluded:

“In sum, our circumstances are not (yet) as dire as they were in 1933. In part for that reason, the people are not prepared to give the president and his party the degree of deference that Roosevelt and the Democratic congress enjoyed at the start of the New Deal--all the more reason for Obama to distinguish between short- and long-term measures at least as carefully as FDR did.”

And the veteran Washington Post columnist David Broder – usually cast as non-partisan and “centrist” – declared on Sunday that President Obama’s honeymoon is over. Broder set out the risks for the administration in having such a sweeping policy agenda; and, in particular, that its health and education programmes will get bogged down in Congress.

We shouldn’t forget that the “loss of focus” storyline is a clever political gambit for conservatives to follow. The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes gave some of the game away when he wrote that the president had a big “grandiose agenda” and that he was right to “go for it now”, while his popularity ratings are still high and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate remain strong. The longer he waits, this argument runs, the more likely Obama’s personal ratings are to sag, with Democrats in congress becoming more worried about the 2010 elections.

Clive Crook explains:

“The prospects for Mr Obama’s agenda depend on his ability to marshal political capital and spend it wisely. In the simplest terms, he needs to stay as popular as he can for as long as possible. Once his approval ratings slide – and they show the first signs of doing so – he is sunk. This is why the “overload” critique is so significant: not because it is correct on the merits but because it is plausible and bipartisan and will erode his standing with the electorate.”

Even if he doesn’t buy the whole “Obama overload” story, Clive Crook regrets what he sees as the president’s failure to play to his strengths with centrists and to rise above left-right rancour.

If the “taking on too much” storyline sticks, his opponents will have succeeded in undermining one of President Obama’s strongest personal narratives: that he’s a positive, new force for real change who can put the “old politics” behind. Another embattled president, suffering falling poll ratings and seeming to play cynical games in order to advance an agenda that is too big and too “radical” can’t do that.

Or, as a very tough politician I worked with years ago told me, if you want to destroy your political opponents, you have to destroy their myths.

No comments: