Take it personally, Mr. President

I’ve been on a bit of an odyssey the past few weeks, traveling to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, London, Paris, Washington, New York, Cleveland, Columbus, Juno Beach, Florida, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and now Chicago. I’ve seen up close a country reinventing itself for the new global economy (not the United States, the UAE). I’ve ...

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I've been on a bit of an odyssey the past few weeks, traveling to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, London, Paris, Washington, New York, Cleveland, Columbus, Juno Beach, Florida, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and now Chicago. I've seen up close a country reinventing itself for the new global economy (not the United States, the UAE). I've seen governments tackling tough fiscal problems with real political courage (not the United States, the British and the French). I've seen protests in the streets of people outraged at having to cope with a new economic reality (not the United States, the French, but America's day is coming). I've seen a capital city obsessed with its own jobs lose touch with a country worried about theirs. (That would be the United States.)

I was in Cleveland when President Barack Obama spoke to a half empty arena (and where he was overshadowed by Ohio's number one narcissist, LeBron James, playing his first game in a Miami Heat uniform). I was in countless board rooms and conferences in which the amount of anger directed at the White House makes last night's election results look obvious and inevitable.

In fact, one of the few unifying factors through all the stops on this trip, regardless of local politics, was the level of disappointment in Obama. Sometimes it was laced with anger. Sometimes it was expressed with simple regret for hopes that people now worried had been misplaced. But almost everywhere it was stoked by a sense that the president at this point in time didn't get it.  

I’ve been on a bit of an odyssey the past few weeks, traveling to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, London, Paris, Washington, New York, Cleveland, Columbus, Juno Beach, Florida, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and now Chicago. I’ve seen up close a country reinventing itself for the new global economy (not the United States, the UAE). I’ve seen governments tackling tough fiscal problems with real political courage (not the United States, the British and the French). I’ve seen protests in the streets of people outraged at having to cope with a new economic reality (not the United States, the French, but America’s day is coming). I’ve seen a capital city obsessed with its own jobs lose touch with a country worried about theirs. (That would be the United States.)

I was in Cleveland when President Barack Obama spoke to a half empty arena (and where he was overshadowed by Ohio’s number one narcissist, LeBron James, playing his first game in a Miami Heat uniform). I was in countless board rooms and conferences in which the amount of anger directed at the White House makes last night’s election results look obvious and inevitable.

In fact, one of the few unifying factors through all the stops on this trip, regardless of local politics, was the level of disappointment in Obama. Sometimes it was laced with anger. Sometimes it was expressed with simple regret for hopes that people now worried had been misplaced. But almost everywhere it was stoked by a sense that the president at this point in time didn’t get it.  

Whether I was in discussions about the Middle East, the rise of Asia, the future of Latin America, about energy, about climate, about immigration, about infrastructure, about terrorism, about weapons of mass destruction, about quantitative easing, about trends in institutional investing, about retailing, about trade or just about American politics — and I have been in all of these in the past three and a half weeks — the frustration with Obama and his failure to realize the almost universal hopes people had for him loomed large.

Is he being defensive? In denial? Clueless? Getting bad advice? Following a strategy? Or is he simply a victim of unreasonably high expectations? (And wasn’t that his own doing?) Just a victim of a vacillating U.S. political system that is so dysfunctional that every election cycle is really just a spasm of buyer’s remorse for the last one? (Or is it that really a reflection of a system that offers only two choices, neither good?)

It doesn’t matter because whatever the pundits may say, we live in a world in which every story must have a human face in order to be televised and Barack Obama, as president, is the human face to this story. Was Nancy Pelosi rejected last night? Yes. Were individual candidates responsible for their own fates? Yes. But, Obama was near the center of this story, and it is impossible to argue that the historic pummeling his party took last night does not reflect on him, his policies, his team, his political strategies and his message.

Of course, the test for him is: How does he respond to this? Does he try to spin it all away as his spokespeople have been doing? It was the economy (translation: not our fault). It was the natural cycle (translation: not our fault). It was about the Congress (translation: blame it on Nancy Pelosi). Blame it on the media. Blame it on our courage for trying to do right by the American people on health care and saving them from the abyss. While all these have truth to them, they also all deflect responsibility. The buck, they suggest, stops elsewhere, thanks.

Does he do what he has seemed to do during the campaign and tighten up, get defensive, lose his charm, confuse intransigence with courage, lack of self-awareness with resoluteness? It will be tempting for those around him inside the groupthink machine — that is, his tight little circle of advisors — to promote this view with their attaboys and chin ups and rationalizations. ("It’ll all swing back to us now. It’s better to have the Republicans have this win. They’ll reveal themselves and we can win like Bill Clinton did after his setback. See… see… they’ll emphasize, even the Politics Daddy himself, that Comeback Kid who has more lives than the villain in a cheap slasher movie… even he went through this. Maybe we’re just like him.")

But of course, the key difference between Clinton and Obama thus far is that Clinton is largely defined by his flaws, by his struggles with them, by his defeats and then by his introspection and ability to adjust. He is the supplest politician of his era. Obama is, to date, apparently one of the more brittle, the least introspective and defined by his smoothness, his lack of flaws.

I firmly believe that Obama can step up and use this experience as a springboard to playing the game at a new level. But he has got to take it personally. He has got to see this as a vote about him, as a message to figure out what he personally did wrong, as a gut-check moment.

He will have a chance to quickly demonstrate the consequences of such hard-introspection and growth, because he is going to have to replace a really large (perhaps historically large) cross-section of his senior team. He needs to ask how he can upgrade and where he can find people that will not only challenge him but will challenge each other.

He mustn’t fall into the trap of path-of-the-least resistance appointments… or succumb to the view that was expressed in a stunning unattributed quote in a recent Wall Street Journal article that suggested the White House would avoid doing too much policy because that’s what got them into trouble in the first place. Who he brings in, whether they elevate and have the stature to challenge and broaden the experience within the team, and whether he truly empowers the new players will be the first tests as to whether he internalized this defeat and made it personal in all the right ways.

The next will, of course, be what policies he undertakes. Here he must do two things. He must understand what he can do without the Congress and do it… because making progress will be tough. And, at the same time, he must find a way to work with the Congress… or at least make a sincere effort to do so… because rest assured, these Republicans also know what happened with Bill Clinton (and to Newt Gingrich). They know the election to election swings are due to voter frustration with Washington shenanigans and ineffectiveness. They will pursue an ideological agenda but they will also want to have a record of some accomplishment. Tacking to the center to find those accomplishments will be another key… because sometimes the best way to take a setback personally is to use its lessons to overcome opposition and advance not your personal goals but those of the people for whom you work.

Only if Obama does that… if he hears this defeat as a call to be not what he has been for the past two years but what he promised to be two years ago… will he be able to do as Clinton did, and look back on a midterm setback as an important step on the path to real accomplishment.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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