How do they do it? Why do they keep doing it? Why is it that they always seem the last to see what they have done to themselves by their own hand?
We watched in disbelief when Richard Nixon cornered himself during the Watergate crimes. When Ronald Reagan approved the Iran-contra scandal. And when George W. Bush invaded Iraq because of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.
That is not the nature of President Barack Obama’s problem. Yet we’ve seen him painting himself into a corner over problems foreign and domestic. Not because of misdeeds, but just because he has failed to convincingly communicate his own best message. And we wonder why this keeps happening to this president, who after all was swept into office by voters who saw him as a compelling Great Communicator.
Why does he not realize until late in the game that he has again lost the trust of people who should be supporting him as he seeks to safeguard our national security, economic and jobs security and health care security?
Why does Obama seem to start ahead but end up having to lead from behind, scrambling helter-skelter just to catch up? It happened with Syria’s horrific use of chemical weapons. Obama was asking Americans and the world to accept on faith official U.S. assurances that Syria’s regime attacked Syrian civilians with sarin gas as they slept — but weeks went by and the U.S. provided no specifics. Soon, polls showed opposition to a U.S. attack increasing among liberals and conservatives.
Meanwhile, back on the homefront, Obama’s presidency is about to get hit by a series of deliberately contrived domestic crises: a potential government shutdown Oct. 1, a tea party bid to defund “Obamacare,” the mandatory sequester cuts versus job creation. Yet just as Obama and his remarkably unsavvy strategists failed to anticipate post-Iraq skepticism about the evidence in Syria, they failed to powerfully refute the message demagoguery of the GOP’s tea party extremists.
Here are key points the president needs to personally sell on the homefront:
• Jobs security versus sequestration cuts. Last week’s announced job-creation numbers were disappointingly lower than expected for June, July and August. That must be understood in context: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently estimated the sequestration-mandated spending cuts will cost us up to 1.6 million new jobs. Indeed, wary federal contractors anticipated the spending cuts and scaled back on hiring a year before the sequester hit.
• Obamacare. Obama’s critics in the tea party movement captured the megaphone for the Affordable Care Act, convincing Americans that the new health insurance law will harm them. The president has failed to pointedly refute the critics’ mainly unspecified claims. Latest polls all show the same trend: Fewer Americans favor Obamacare now than when it became law — and more Americans now oppose it than support it. The well-financed anti-Obamacare campaign has scared people, though they cannot specify why. The president needs to emphasize the ways in which his program will help, not hurt, most Americans. And Obama needs to repeatedly and publicly tell Republican leaders to come forward with specific concerns, so both sides can work together to resolve them in ways that work best for all Americans.
• Government shutdown: Tea party activists have been blackmailing Republican leaders in Congress who fear they will be challenged in GOP primary elections if they don’t permit a vote to defund Obamacare or shut down the federal government when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. GOP leaders, knowing polls show Americans realize a shutdown can be disastrous (as it was when Republicans tried it in the Clinton era), are trying to come up with a parliamentary trick that will let Republicans vote against funding the health reform law before a government shutdown. Again, Obama needs to prove that a shutdown will be disastrous for Americans — and that health reform is in everyone’s best interest.
The tea party’s fact-lite demagoguery successfully targeted frustrations of Americans in this economically fragile time. Republican leaders have feigned laryngitis rather than refuting tea party claims.
Perversely, Obama can salvage his presidency and legacy by simultaneously rescuing the Republican Party’s timid leaders — and boldly showing America the emptiness of the Grand Old Party’s teapot.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.