Peter Baker and Barack Obama Fixate on Tactics

Interestingly, in the New York Times Magazine profile that came out over the weekend, President Obama knocks down what I've called the zombie myth of presidents "not connecting":

"I was looking over some chronicles of the Clinton years," Obama told me, "and was reminded that in '94 -- when President Clinton's poll numbers were lower than mine, and obviously the election ended up being bad for Democrats -- unemployment was only 6.6 percent. And I don't think anybody would suggest that Bill Clinton wasn't a good communicator or was somebody who couldn't connect with the American people or didn't show empathy."

(Salon's Steve Kornacki made a similar point about 1994 and Clinton's communication skills.)

The author of the profile, Peter Baker, also suggests he understands the influence of the underlying economic conditions in this passage, particularly the sentence I've highlighted in bold:

In the fall of 1994, things were even better than Obama recalls: unemployment was in fact 5.6 percent. If the feel-your-pain president had trouble when the economy was not nearly as bad as it is now, with 9.6 percent unemployment, then maybe the issue for Obama is not that he is too cool or detached, as some pundits say. When the economy is bad, even the most talented of presidents suffer at the polls. "There is an anti-establishment mood," Rahm Emanuel, the former Clinton aide who served as Obama's first White House chief of staff, told me before he stepped down this month. "We just happen to be here when the music is stopping."

However, after this throat-clearing, both Obama and Baker yield to the predictable temptation to place much of the blame for the administration's political situation on tactical failures -- a misattribution I call the tactical fallacy:

During our hour together, Obama told me he had no regrets about the broad direction of his presidency. But he did identify what he called "tactical lessons." He let himself look too much like "the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat." He realized too late that "there's no such thing as shovel-ready projects" when it comes to public works. Perhaps he should not have proposed tax breaks as part of his stimulus and instead "let the Republicans insist on the tax cuts" so it could be seen as a bipartisan compromise.

Most of all, he has learned that, for all his anti-Washington rhetoric, he has to play by Washington rules if he wants to win in Washington. It is not enough to be supremely sure that he is right if no one else agrees with him. "Given how much stuff was coming at us," Obama told me, "we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right. There is probably a perverse pride in my administration -- and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top -- that we were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular. And I think anybody who's occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics and that you can't be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion."

In particular, Baker attributes Clinton's revival to his shift toward the center and does not mention the improving economy, which made it very likely he would be re-elected:

As Obama looks to the experiences of Clinton and Reagan, who both rebounded from midterm debacles to win re-election, the lessons differ... Clinton likewise changed course after the 1994 elections, emphasizing more incremental, piece-by-piece change rather than sweeping proposals and pursuing goals like welfare reform and balanced budgets when he could agree with Newt Gingrich's new majority.

Clinton, though, was more instinctively centrist than Obama is, and his revival owed much to other factors, particularly his leadership after the Oklahoma City bombing and his budget standoff with Gingrich during the partial government shutdown.

Tactics play a role, but they are a second-order concern at best. Obama's fortunes will largely be determined by the state of the economy, not "marketing and P.R. and public opinion." In that sense, Obama was correct when he spent his time trying to "get the policy right" and is wrong now to be shifting his concerns toward "marketing and P.R." However, the irony is that even while he was working so hard on policy, Obama allowed his Federal Reserve nominees to languish for months -- a blunder that may end up costing him re-election.

[Cross-posted to]