New York Review and John Judis in The New Republic, both generally sympathetic to the Obama presidency, have written pieces that feed into what I would consider the mistaken conventional wisdom that the president is failing to get his message across. Their prescriptions are similar: Judis thinks Obama needs to be more confrontational and more populistic. Rich thinks he should place less faith in the "best and brightest" team he has assembled, particularly in military and economic matters, and that he should reexamine his faith in bi-partisan pragmatism.
A lot of critics on the left seem tired of non-confrontational politics, and are just itching for a good old-fashioned fight. This attitude may be healthy considering that midterm elections are coming up, and some good old-fashioned fighting is probably called for. It is also an understandable attitude considering that liberal supporters of the administration have had to swallow a number of compromises in their goals, and considering that we have had to contend with a highly obstructionist attitude on the part of Republican members of Congress, as well as other vicious, unfair and negative attacks from the right.
Still, apart from the need to run a rousing fall election campaign, which the public will understand and expect, I think it would be a mistake for Obama to abandon the non-confrontational, post-partisan style that has gotten him this far. First of all, why would he tamper with success? He did not do so during the campaign, despite repeated calls to get tougher against both Hillary Clinton and John McCain. He did not do so in the battles with Congress to pass major pieces of legislation. And guess what? He won the election without getting into the mud with Clinton or McCain. And Congress passed the stimulus bill, the health care reform bill, and the financial reform bill without the president ever having to abandon his efforts to work with any serious proposals from the opposition party. No one can say that a different style would have been more successful. And the fact is that the Obama presidency has already been enormously successful, to the consternation of critics from both left and right, who just can't seem to understand how the Obama team seems to pass bill after bill despite its supposedly weak-sounding themes of pragmatism and consensus.
Second, adopting a populist or confrontational tone now would amount to a betrayal of the message that appealed to so many Americans from the time of Obama's inspirational 2004 speech to the Democratic convention, when he asked us to get beyond Red State America and Blue State America and consider that we all might be part of the same United States of America. A lot of cynics and seasoned political observers might think those sentiments are hopelessly naive, and are ready to give up trying to reconcile opposing points of view, but abandoning that message could cost Obama substantial support among many millions of people idealistic (naive?) enough to find some hope in it. My guess is that opponents on the right would love nothing more than to see President Obama turn into a fiery populist who would rather fight the opposition (and sometimes lose) than attempt to work with his political opponents (and generally win). The first thing the Rush Limbaughs and John Boehners and Mitch McConnells would say if a new more partisan Obama emerged would be: "See? We told you he was a dangerous, anti-American, fire-breathing socialist." These people would love nothing more than a fighting non-compromising Obama. Their biggest frustration is that Obama keeps reaching his hand out to them. They would much rather have the public see his fist.
I'm sure there are ways the Obama team could improve its communications and perhaps modify some of its policy directions. I'm sure they are already doing that. But critics like Rich and Judis should not expect a fundamental change in approach from a team that came into office promising a new kind of politics. And it is way too premature to make any judgments that a more non-confrontational, pragmatic kind of politics has failed.
(Politics in Mexico, from Sodahead)