28 July 2010

Obama's Next Big Mistake

Back in 1994, my undergrad mentor commented to me that Bill Clinton was making a serious error in "nationalizing" the midterm elections. By "nationalizing," he meant making them a referendum on himself. That was just one of many instances where I wasn't convinced at first, but later came to realize my mentor had a considerable amount of political wisdom.

I see Barack Obama making the same mistake. The Republicans are, as a matter of course, trying to make the elections a referendum on Obama because as the sitting president, the perpetual #1 issue for voters--the economy--can politically be laid at his feet. Obama would be wise to try to try to downplay the referendum aspect, but instead he seems to be accepting it.

In electoral politics, it's always crucial to remember the words of Tip O'Neill: All politics is local. If you nationalize the election, the issue becomes, "How do the locals feel about Obama?" At present, polls by Gallup, Rasmussen, CNN, and Quinnipiac all show the President with approval ratings below 50%. In parliamentary systems, where every election is a referendum on the current government, Prime Ministers generally try to avoid calling elections when their approval rating is below the percentage they need for electoral success.

Obama's effort is not precisely stupid. He's not saying, "Hey, don't you think I'm great," but "Hey, it's the Republicans who caused this mess, so you don't want to go back to that, do you?" But the effort is not precisely wise, either, because it still keeps the focus on the economy, which does him no good at all.

What Obama should be doing is publicly pointing out that it's not about him, it's about "your local candidate." He needs to pinpoint the Democratic candidates in need, particularly incumbents, and put massive efforts into supporting their campaigns, but without making himself the focus of the campaign. He should never go to a campaign event and say, "I need this guy in Washington," but "He is a great man,* who's working hard to do X, Y, and Z for you." Or he should just help them raise vast amounts of cash, and then just stay the hell out of their district unless polling shows that a majority of the non-party-registered folks in that district approve of him.

He'll say great things about the candidates of course. But he'll probably also show up where he shouldn't, talk about himself too much, and inevitably make people think that their vote is about Obama, about the Democrats in Washington, and about the poor state of the economy. In other words, he'll almost certainly bungle things and make it a referendum on Barack Obama.

He'll do that because while he's a sharp and clever campaigner, he doesn't seem to be wise. And he doesn't seem to be wise because he seems to personalize everything too much--something wise people don't do.** Of course it takes a phenomenal ego to successfully run for the presidency. And it's hard for those with such an ego to let go, sit back, and not take center stage.

But as I tell my students in my course on strategic behavior, a strategic person sets aside personal feelings of satisfaction in order to focus on those actions that will achieve their real goal.*** (And if the real goal is just that personal feeling of satisfaction, you're missing the whole point.) Whether Obama can recognize the need to do that, and whether he actually can discipline himself to do it, are two separate questions. Each has to be answered in the affirmative if he is to make the right strategic choices between now and November.
*She/woman, etc. Isn't it about time someone cleverer than I came up with a good gender-neutral singular pronoun?
**Note: I'm not claiming to say this as a wise person myself. It's a quality that I have observed unanimously among the people I consider to have wisdom. That I occasionally manage to emulate it does not mean I have become wise myself.
***Don't look at me like that. You know the old saying: "Those who can, do. Those can't, teach."

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