Carville exposes politically tone-deaf Obama (again)
James Carville and Stan Greenberg, two veterans of Bill Clinton’s national election sweeps who, more than a decade on, still happen to be two of the smartest guys in the upper reaches of the Democratic brain trust, dropped a heavy-duty dime on President Barack Obama this week.
They criticized Obama’s audaciously out-of-touch re-election trope that everything is getting better.
“Today is an encouraging day,” the President said in a campaign stop in North Carolina this spring. “We learned that the economy actually produced a substantial number of jobs instead of losing a substantial number of jobs. We are turning the corner.”
The president took this argument to its absurd extreme last week, saying in his best Jim Nabors voice that “everything is fi-i-i-ine in the private sector.”
This could be a wickedly effective case for re-election. That is, if it were anything close to true. But it isn’t, so it’s not.
In fact, the “turning the corner, everything is fi-i-i-ine” routine is worse than merely not effective. It makes the president seem disconnected from the struggles of real people — like George H.W. Bush not knowing the price of milk, only worse.
Optimism is an essential characteristic of any leader and presidents, of course, have broad capacity to reshape public opinion through the reach of their bully pulpit. One famous presidential historian said that the chief power of any president is the “power to persuade.”
But optimism and the power of persuasion operate within certain limiting boundaries. The president is not allowed to redefine the day as night. In the same way, he runs the risk of seeming out-of-touch when he tells the world that everything is fine when, in fact, the world knows that everything is not fine.
Enter the Ragin’ Cajun, Jimmy Carville.
“I’m worried that when the White House or the campaign talks about the progress that’s being made, people take that as a signal that they think that things are fine and people don’t feel they ought to believe that,” Carville said on “Good Morning America” earlier this week.
In a memo to other Democrats that created all the media attention, Carville and Greenberg pressed the point more sharply: “(V)oters are not convinced that we are headed in the right direction. They are living in a new economy — and there is no conceivable recovery in the year ahead that will change the view of the new state of the country.”
Carville and Greenberg’s advice for the president? Stop saying everything is OK when everyone knows everything is far from OK and start empathizing with a struggling middle class.
From this foundation of empathy — can’t you just see Bill Clinton biting his lip? — make the case for how you, as president, will improve matters.
“We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative, one that contextualizes the recovery but, more importantly, focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class.”
In other words, stop lecturing, start feeling our pain and get on with telling us how we move forward.
This isn’t the first time that Carville has rung up the “greatest politician of our generation” for being a really tone-deaf politician. Carville hammered Obama for saying effectively nothing about the BP oil spill for 40-some odd days after the calamity.
And when the Democrats were swept out of much of Congress in the 2010 mid-term elections, Carville suggested that the president “panic” and fire the inner circle of advisers whose stewardship had veered his presidency into the electoral ditch.
Predictably, aides-de-camp in the Obama administration privately dismiss Carville as a sour grapes Clintonista, an estranged pol who is still pouting over the fact that Barack beat his Hillary in a nasty 2008 Democratic primary.
But this ad hominem dismissal of Carville by Team Obama misses the more important point: Carville’s public upbraidings of the president are spot on.
Obama was wrong to stay silent on the BP oil spill. He definitely should have fired somebody after the public rejected his leadership in November of 2010. And his “everything is hunky-dory” routine does make him sound dangerously disconnected.
For three and a half years now, it has become shared wisdom, even among those who violently disagree over the effectiveness of his presidency, that Barack Obama as campaigner is sui generis virtuoso — like once-in-a-generation really, really good.
But when you read the critique of died-in-the-wool Democrats like the one from Carville this week, it sort of makes you wonder:
Is President Obama the indomitable candidate that conventional wisdom purports, or is he just a really good speechmaker who was in the right place at the right time in ‘08 when the American public was hungry for hope and a fresh face to give it?
I guess time will tell which view of Obama as candidate is the correct one. Any bets on which side of the argument James Carville takes?
Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.