Panelists: James A. Thurber, director, Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, American University; Stephen J. Wayne, professor of government, Georgetown University; Barbara Sinclair, professor emeritus of American politics, University of California, Los Angeles; Ron Elving, senior Washington editor, National Public Radio News; and Scott Lilly, senior fellow, Center for American Progress.
The central paradox of Barack Obama’s presidency to date is why such an articulate campaigner has been unable to communicate to the American people what his administration has accomplished. Put another way, how can an administration which has been so successful in enacting so many major laws be perceived by many as a failure? A panel of chapter authors for the book, “Obama in Office,” agreed at a Nov. 29 Wilson Center book discussion on the paradox, but differed on the reasons for it and whether it was a principal cause of public discontent.
Stephen Wayne, professor of government at Georgetown University, pointed to Obama’s picture on the book’s cover and said it conveyed an image of a man who is haughty, overconfident, aloof, arrogant and, with his head held high, above it all. Whether an accurate portrayal or not, Wayne said, it is that perception that helps explain why the president is failing to connect with average citizens. The president is “a calculating thinker, but reluctant doer,” noted Wayne. “He is more comfortable with campaigning than he is with governing,” and he therefore “talks too much, travels too much, and acts too little.” Wayne said the president is a “risk-averse policymaker,” and “doesn’t seem to like getting his hands dirty with partisan politics. He sounds like Harry Truman but acts more like George H.W. Bush. And we all know what happened to him.”
Barbara Sinclair, a professor emeritus of American politics at UCLA, questioned the notion that the president should be expected to lead the Congress. “We do have a system of separated powers, after all, and Congress does not take kindly to dictates from above.” She also took issue with placing too much emphasis on the president’s personality and leadership style as somehow being responsible for negative public attitudes, pointing out that our dire economic conditions are what is really driving public opinion and perceptions; and they are understandably negative not just toward the president, but toward the entire government at this point. Sinclair hastened to add that much of the criticism of government is justified: “Divided government is now a disaster. It is not like the old days when you could get some things done on a bipartisan basis.”
Ron Elving of NPR noted that the media’s love affair with Obama ended with his inauguration, and so much reporting on the administration has subsequently been critical in nature because the president was not able to produce promised changes overnight. The people do not see the world as it is, but the world as seen through the lenses of the media,” Elving pointed out. “The media reversed itself after the election, and no longer allows Obama to control the narrative.” Moreover, Obama no longer has all the people behind him that he had during the campaign; and that affects his ability to rally support and get things done. “Consequently, a new story arose which proves we all suffer from attention deficit syndrome,” Elving continued. “It began on the right—Fox News, the tea party,” and media’s focus on the president’s critics and their criticisms, especially during the 2009 town hall meetings with people shouting their complaints about the health care bill. The White House tried to get out its message through alternative media and venues, Elving noted, and achieved some degree of success. But it could not change the narrative, especially when it encountered pushback from disappointed liberals over some of Obama’s policy failures such as the Guantanamo prison closure, climate change and immigration reform.
Scott Lilly, senior scholar at the Center for American Progress and a 31-year House Democratic staff veteran, agreed that the Administration has failed miserably in communicating what it is doing and what it has accomplished. While he agreed that the misinformation put out by some conservative politicians and commentators has made this especially difficult, the failure cannot be blamed entirely on the right. Lilly compared the situation Obama inherited in 2009 to that of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, and found the situations were quite different. “By the time Roosevelt took office, the depression had already hit bottom, and the only way to go was up. When Obama took office, things were just beginning to slide into free-fall, with unemployment still climbing.” In those circumstances, Lilly noted, “it was difficult for Obama to convince the people that his programs were working.” At the same time he was dealing with two ongoing wars, and demands from interest groups on climate change, health care, sexual orientation in the military and immigration. “It is hard to stay on message when there are so many competing demands.” In 1933, “even the Republicans were voting for FDR’s New Deal programs,” Lilly observed, “because they didn’t know what else could be done.” Today, Republicans in Congress are in “virulent opposition to the president on almost everything,” and the conservative media and commentators have fueled their arguments. Lilly said it is still difficult to understand the drubbing Democrats took in the 2010 midterm elections. The Obama administration’s failure to communicate its achievements to the American people was only a part of it. “Even members of his own Democratic party didn’t understand what had happened.”
James Thurber, editor of the book and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, suggested that Obama may have “over-learned the lessons from 1994” when President Bill Clinton attempted to force his detailed health care plan on Congress. “Is Obama’s apparent ‘lead-from-behind’ strategy really working for him,” Thurber asked. While panelists agreed that it eventually paid off in the enactment of his signature health care bill and other major legislation on which he allowed the Democrats in Congress to take the lead, the overall impression left was that he was not assertive enough in moving things through the process better. But, as Sinclair reminded the panel, the president only has so much clout on Capitol Hill, and it is unrealistic to think he can change a system that is so dysfunctional.
Reported by: Don Wolfensberger, Director, Congress Seminar Series, Wed., Nov. 30, 2011.
About the Authors
James A. Thurber is University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Government and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. Under his direction, the Center organizes the Campaign Management Institute, the Public Affairs Advocacy Institute and the European Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute. He has served on the faculty at American University since 1974, was named the University’s Scholar/Teacher of the Year in 1996, and is a member of the National Academy of Public Administration. He has worked on four congressional reorganization efforts since 1976, and has served as legislative assistant to Senators Huber H. Humphrey, William Brock, and Adlai Stevenson III, and Rep. David Obey. He is editor of Rivals for Power: Presidential Congressional Relations (4th ed., 2009), Campaign Warriors: Political Consultants and Elections (2000) and, most recently, Obama in Office (2011). He earned a B.A. from the University of Oregon, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Indiana University.
Stephen J. Wayne is professor of American Government with the Department of Government at Georgetown University. He is author of The Road to the White House, 2012 (9th edition, 2009), Personality and Politics: Obama For and Against Himself (2011), and coauthor with George C. Edwards of Presidential Leadership (8th ed., 2009). He has served as president of the Presidency Research Group and the National Capital Area Political Science Association. He earned a B.A. from the University of Rochester, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University.
Barbara Sinclair is Professor Emeritus of American Politics at the University of California, Los Angeles. She served as chair of the Legislative Studies Section of the American Political Science Association from 1993 to 1995. She is author of several books including Transformation of the U.S. Senate (1989), for which she won the Richard F. Fenno Prize and the D.B. Hardeman Prize; Legislators, Leaders and Lawmakers: The U.S. House of Representatives in the Post-reform Era (1995); and Unorthodox Lawmaking: New Legislative Processes in the U.S. Congress (3rd edition, 2007). She earned a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester.
Ron Elving is supervising senior Washington editor for NPR News, where he directs coverage of the capitol and national politics. He previously served as political editor for USA Today and for Congressional Quarterly. He has taught as an adjunct professor in the Graduate Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University and in the School of Communication at American University. He began his tenure in Washington in 1984 as a congressional fellow with the American Political Science Association, and served two years as a staff member in the House and Senate. He previously worked as a political reporter for The Milwaukee Journal. He is author of Conflict and Compromise: How Congress Makes Law (1995). He earned a B.A. from Stanford, and M.A. degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley.
Scott Lilly is a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress. Prior to joining the Center in March 2004 he served for 31 years as a staff member in the U.S. House of Representatives, culminating as staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. He previously served as staff director of the House Democratic Study Group and as executive director of the Joint Economic Committee. He is a veteran of the U.S. Army and a graduate of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.
- Director, Center for Congressional and President Studies, American University
- professor of government, Georgetown University
- professor emeritus, University of California, Los Angeles
- senior Washington editor, National Public Radio
- senior fellow, Center for American Progress