Obama's Blackberry Moment

Obama can't catch a break. His Republican opposition gained control of the House, seats in the Senate, and control of more statehouses. He lost big in the center, with both GOP moderates and Blue Dog Democrats dropping like flies. Even the Progressive wing is calling, if not for his hide, for his vertebrae.

How did it get that way? Perhaps there is a clue in one of the Obama administration's earliest decisions. The subject was not a big, profound issue like nuclear arms, health care, or tax policy. It was quite literally a tiny issue: the President's Blackberry.

Obama's 2008 campaign was a marvel to behold. It should command the study and respect of anyone interested in the conduct of American politics, regardless of one's views on the issues. It is a story of mastery of tactics, both in the poorly-funded long-shot early days and at the end as the most heavily funded and well organized national campaign in our history.

How did Candidate Obama keep connected to and in control of the campaign? The same way any 21st Century road warrior does: on his smart phone. E-mails and text messages because you can read 10 to 30 times faster than people can talk. Phone calls from any where at any time when an issue needed discussion and/or discretion. Obama did what every successful modern business person, academic, or government official does.

He wasn't just good at it, he was outstanding. The perception of competence that grew around Obama's Blackberry helped offset his lack of formal administrative experience in the minds of voters. The precision and discipline showed in the campaign created an expectation that he would be up to the biggest administrative job on Earth.

As soon as he won the election, "they" wanted to take away his Blackberry. It was never entirely clear who "they" were, but "they" seemed to include a lot of Obama's incoming staff as well as existing Washington bureaucracy.

But what "they" wanted was clear: control of the flow of information to the President, and from that control, actual power. It was, as Obama likes to say, a teachable moment.

So what did Obama do? He negotiated for a while, and then compromised, but did so in a way that gave him only a symbolic victory and gave "them" the entire advantage. Obama surrendered his standard-issue Blackberry for one that "they" controlled. You or I could have sent an e-mail to Candidate Obama's Blackberry. He may not have read it, and most likely wouldn't have had time to respond to it. But you and I are not on "their" list of who can get through.

This small issue set a pattern. A Kabuki dance of "negotiation" where the other party is disingenuous, followed by a one-sided compromise in which the other side gets most of the substance. And the pattern continued on issue after issue: closing Gitmo, DADT, health care, finance reform, taxes.

What should Obama have done? Every leader needs to listen to the people around him. But there are times when a leader needs to say, "This is what we are going to do. Make it so."

In this case, Obama should have said something like, "I depend on my Blackberry to stay in touch with a very wide range of people. I need that even more as President. You're worried about security? Rogue hackers? Other country's spooks? Sure. But even the spook agency of India can't hack a Blackberry without the company's help. India, mind you, to whom the world outsources its IT. You're still worried? Get the best experts in the NSA and industry to upgrade my unit. But I'm keeping it, and I'm keeping control of it. Now make it so."

From the moment Obama lost control of his Blackberry, he started to lose control of his people and his Party. His soaring rhetoric, which worked because he knew what people needed to hear, gave way to oracular timidity. His legislative programs came to depend on Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid: both masters of the daily minutia of their respective legislative houses and both disastrously incompetent at communicating to the public at large.

Obama acts like he has lost contact with the world beyond the White House staff and the cabinet. And perhaps he has. The bully pulpit is empty; the world's loudest megaphone lies largely silent.

Can Obama regain his campaign-era mojo? Some think that it can only happen if his next Blackberry moment has a different outcome, one in which he's in command. Make it so.