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Saturday, November 17 , 2018, 5:42 am | Overcast 50º


Susan Estrich: Only Obama Is to Blame for His Presidential Missteps

The people around him are telling him what he needs to hear; he's simply not listening

These days, I try to avoid conversations about President Barack Obama. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in politics. It’s just that most of them don’t go anywhere.

They start with all the hope people had when he was elected and then go quickly downhill to disappointment. And because it is much easier to blame the people around him than the man himself, I’m constantly faced with questions I can’t answer — or rather, questions that I can answer but that satisfy no one.

Why don’t they tell him he needs to stand up for something?

Why don’t they tell him he needs to focus on jobs instead of the deficit?

Why don’t they tell him he needs to put the Republicans on the defensive for protecting corporate America instead of the middle class?

Why don’t they tell him people hate these games of chicken that are being played in Washington?

Why don’t they tell him not to schedule a speech on Wednesday when the Republicans are debating, only to look weak when he has to move it to Thursday?

Why don’t they tell him not to go to Martha’s Vineyard on vacation when so many Americans are out of work and can’t afford vacations?

Here’s the short answer: They do.

When you’re on top, you’re a genius. Everyone tells you how smart you are. When you’re not, all you get is advice. The one thing I am sure the president is not short on right now is advice. The one thing I am sure White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, one of the smartest politicos I’ve ever met, is doing is passing along advice.

It’s not that no one is telling the president. They are. They’re not holding back on good ideas. It might be that there is some brilliant answer on the table that he is just not seeing. But I have my doubts.

The truth is that the buck stops there. If you want to blame someone for the president’s missteps, blame him. He chooses his advisers. He decides what advice to accept and what to reject.

Speaking for myself, if I had a silver bullet, I’d pick up the phone.

Some things are easy to see. It’s still the economy, stupid, as James Carville famously pointed out during the Clinton campaign. There is no problem Obama has right now that couldn’t be solved by a substantial reduction of the unemployment rate.

Oh, they could play the political dance better — look stronger, make different scheduling decisions; he could vacation less and play less golf. But none of that matters very much one way or the other if one in 10 people is looking for work and can’t find it.

The president will, no doubt, unveil a laundry list of programs that he is pushing now and remind us of the ones he pushed in the past to try to create jobs. The Republicans will respond by saying big government is part of the problem, not part of the solution; the private sector needs to be unleashed; red tape needs to be cut. Rhetoric is easy. Plans you don’t have to pass are easy. Progress is hard.

What the Obama presidency has revealed, painfully, is not how much power a president has, but how little, particularly when Congress is in the hands of the opposing party and it’s an election year and the leaders of that party — both in the House and the Senate — are determined to defeat him.

What he has — all he has — is the power to persuade: the power to persuade Congress that they will pay a price if they don’t act, the power to persuade the media that he is doing everything that can be done, and ultimately, the power to persuade the public not only to stand behind him, but to show their confidence by spending money and buying houses and, most importantly, creating jobs.

This president showed an uncanny ability to persuade during his run for the presidency. He persuaded the country to trust an African-American first-term senator over candidates who, on paper, had far more experience than he. As president, he seems to have lost that power, that touch. Too many people, including those who supported him, see him as arrogant and aloof. Too many believe he has lost his way, succumbed to Washington, forgotten his message. Appearance is reality.

Yes, we can. Millions responded to candidate Obama. Now it’s time for him to prove that, yes, he can.

— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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