The Oval Office isn’t the place to learn on the job. That was the line from both Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain in 2008. In fairness, that’s always the argument the more experienced candidate uses against the less experienced candidate (just ask Mitt Romney).
But Barack Obama seemed a special case, easily among the least experienced major party nominees in U.S. history. A Pew poll in August 2008 found that the biggest concern voters had with Obama fell under the category of “personal abilities and experience.” In a “change” year, Americans swallowed those concerns and voted for the change candidate.
Four years later, it’s worth asking, “What has Obama learned?”
Several journalists have asked that exact question. And Obama’s answers raise another question: Can Obama learn?
In July, CBS News’ Charlie Rose asked Obama what the biggest mistake of his first term was. Obama replied it “was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right.”
Getting the policy right is important, Obama continued, “but the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”
Then, last week, in an admirably tough interview on the Spanish-language network Univision, Obama was asked what his biggest failure was. His first impulse was to pander. “My biggest failure so far is we haven’t gotten comprehensive immigration reform done,” Obama said. “But it’s not because for lack of trying or desire, and I’m confident we are going to accomplish that.”
(Actually, it was at least a little “for a lack of trying or desire,” given that Obama never pushed for the legislation, even when his party controlled Congress.)
Then Obama got contemplative. “The most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside, you can only change it from the outside,” he said. “That’s how I got elected, and that’s how the big accomplishments like healthcare got done because we mobilized the American people to speak out.”
Put simply: This is very strange stuff.
In the 2008 primaries, Obama and Clinton had an intense argument over the nature of the presidency. Clinton argued that real change came when skillful politicians moved the machinery of Washington toward progressive ends. The president was a “chief executive officer” who is “able to manage and run the bureaucracy,” she explained.
No, no, replied Obama. The presidency “involves having a vision for where the country needs to go .... and then being able to mobilize and inspire the American people to get behind that agenda for change.”
So, after four years on the job, Obama has learned that he was right all along! How humble.
Except that’s not the story of Obama’s presidency. Contrary to popular myth, Obama has not rallied public opinion to his side on a single major domestic issue.
The idea that healthcare reform was an “outsider-driven” affair is especially otherworldly. Unpopular from the get-go, it passed with ugly horse trades and legislative bribes that helped spur an outsider movement to defeat it, i.e., the “tea parties.”
His claim that he was too busy “getting the policy right” to tell the people a story is doubly creepy in its lack of self-awareness. All the reporting about Obama’s first term suggests that he outsourced the heavy lifting on the stimulus, “Obamacare” and Wall Street reform to the Democratic leadership while he indulged his logorrheic platitudinousness. According to Bob Woodward’s new book, even Nancy Pelosi hit mute on the speakerphone (which she’s denied) during one of Obama’s perorations, and she and Harry Reid went on with their meeting.
In his first year, Obama barely stopped talking to the American people, who unfortunately didn’t always have a mute button handy. According to CBS’s Mark Knoller, Obama gave 411 speeches or statements (52 addresses solely on healthcare reform), 42 news conferences, 158 interviews, 23 town hall meetings and 28 fundraisers.
And what did Obama learn from all of this? Nothing, nothing at all.