It's just not natural to see and hear a President as often as we've seen this guy! He's held press "availabilities" with dizzying frequency. Many of his speeches or "town hall forums" have been aired live or highlighted on television. Obama has hosted more press conferences than his predecessors after nine months. And, he's appeared on "60 Minutes" twice, along with Letterman and Leno.
What makes this more striking is the extent to which Obama has been seen in "campaign-mode" - as he does all this speechifying. Why is he still acting like he's in a campaign on so many occasions during his first year as President? I'm tired of seeing Obama making "pitches" - whether for the stimulus package or health care reform . We saw him in that role for his long presidential campaign; now, we need to see Obama take action and make decisions more than make "pleas" for support.
It's time for Obama to take breaks from talking publicly. The constant public "performing" has been hurting him more than helping, I think. Mr. President: How about just working in the White House a bit more often? Maybe lingering in the Oval Office would help in more ways than one. Perhaps you and your staff can show more faith that things will be OK - even if you're not out trying to "sell" your policies.
For quite a while, I thought Obama's "high-visibility" approach made some sense. Obama had walked into an incredible economic crisis. He was new, young - and the nation's first black President. It seemed a good idea to be visible, open and attempting to become more familiar to the American people. I also bought the argument that it was important to keep Obama's "favorability" high during the first months of his first year, when, clearly, his Administration is trying to get so much accomplished when their chances for legislation are highest. I wrote about this in a June 2nd blog, in which I noted that this approach had worked "so far," but I worried then that, in the long term, it could have a down side.
Well, during the summer - which was a poor one for Obama - I began to feel the negatives of the high-visibility approach were outweighing the positives.
Now, I'm afraid this White House may be disturbingly out of touch about the impact and role of the President's appearances. It's as if Obama's advisors view Obama as a "rock star" with a golden touch -- and the only one who can represent the Administration.
Howard Fineman, in his Sept. 26th column in Newsweek, argued that the Obama team should consider the limited value of visibility (alone) for the President. Fineman wrote:
"The president's problem isn't that he's too visible; it's the lack of content in what he says when he keeps showing up on the tube. Obama can seem a mite too impressed with his own aura, as if his presence on the stage is the Answer...."
In addition, some related trends have emerged as problems for the President:
First, on a number of occasions, Obama has attracted considerable criticism - sometimes from Republicans or policy critics - and been far too slow to respond to it. I felt this happened most glaringly during the summer of constant attacks on the Obama health care reform efforts. One reason: Obama has lacked allies and surrogates - inside and outside of Congress - who have his back and will passionately support him whenever asked, on short notice.
Second, it seems Obama has not shown - enough - that he has a backbone. That he has deep conviction about certain priorities. That he can and will say "No" more to groups, individuals and other leaders. If he's showing this tendency exclusively in private, then his staff should leak anecdotes that give us a glimpse of it.
Third, Obama talks so much to us that when he doesn't follow through on something, it raises questions about how seriously he takes his own words and the extent to which he thinks we take his words seriously. (He's characterized his support for the "public option" in a variety of ways on different occasions and appeared weaker than necessary). Sometimes, I wonder if he thinks it matters, or, if he can say anything and still talk his way out of it - and, this raises questions about the strength of his own beliefs).
Fourth, Obama, simply, needs to show he's in charge more. Too often, he's been explaining topics to us instead of telling us about tough decisions he's made and what plans he's implementing, going forward - regardless of the opposition. To me, a rare example when President Obama did just that was his decision to not install an anti-missile system in eastern Europe. Obama had said he'd conduct a review of this matter, and his announcement pleased the Russians and prompted criticism from Republicans, but, he appeared to have resolve about it, sure and steady.
While, obviously, none of us know what goes on behind closed doors in the White House, after nine months, you can get a sense of certain dynamics and speculate based on limited observations. Somehow, Obama and his people began placing too much emphasis on using Obama's outstanding talents, speaking, explaining and inspiring and seemed to place too little on his need to lead in other ways daily - to display leadership to House and Senate members, other constituencies, to tap the right talent in his closest staff and oversee and make demands on his Cabinet secretaries.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, in a Sept. 29th piece, spoke to this from another perspective. Cohen's introduction said:
"Sooner or later it is going to occur to Barack Obama that he is the president of the United States. As of yet, though, he does not act that way, appearing promiscuously on television and granting interviews like the presidential candidate he no longer is. The election has been held, but the campaign goes on. The candidate has yet to become commander-in-chief...."
Cohen's line prompted me to reexamine all of Obama's "campaigning" for health care reform.
One can question the value of the events because they clearly have not swayed many people toward supporting Obama's proposed reforms, but perhaps another lesson for the White House is that they should have invested more time back in the White House developing the content, strategy and arguments they planned to use in presenting their reform proposals AND the steps they'd follow to keep Congress operating under a tighter framework.
If, in fact, the Obama team were to fail in its quest to win approval for a significant health care reform package, it'd probably mean there were flaws in the legislation and the early assessments of what could be won, or not with Congress -- but, surely, the frequency or drama surrounding Obama's performances on center stage will not be viewed as pivotal, I don't think.
I agree with Cohen. It's time for Obama and his advisors to focus more on how the President his leading, or, not leading - - and try to shore up existing weaknesses.
The irony is that if Obama stayed in the White House more and reduced his appearances, the focus of news coverage might shift more to content and his execution of difficult actions, tough policy choices and Obama's leading other important people and groups.
The Obama White House needs to cultivate media attention to these other aspects of Obama's leadership. He should not have to "campaign" so much now. He's the President, and, if he acts more like he's in control and comfortable using his power, the media, and then the public, will notice the difference.