Among Democrats, the finger-pointing has already begun over what is shaping up to be a catastrophic loss in Massachusetts. (Over at 538, smart pollster Nate Silver is giving Martha Coakley only a 25 percent chance of winning in the bluest of blue states.) They’re blaming Coakley for being a bad candidates (she is); they’re blaming her pollsters and strategists; they’re blaming President Obama.
For my money, Obama ought to get about half the blame for the trouble all Democrats — not just Coakley — are in. He has not developed the ability to tell a persuasive narrative to the voters. In that regard, he ain’t Ronald Reagan.
A couple of liberal pundits — E.J. Dionne and Eugene Robinson — have pointed out that Ronald Reagan’s fortunes had fallen as far as Obama’s after his first year in office. That’s because Reagan had also inherited a terrible economy. But Dionne and Robinson also point out that Reagan was the Great Communicator who never stopped bashing the Democrats and Jimmy Carter for the nation’s woes. And his critique stuck: A generation later, many Americans believe government is the problem and not the answer.
Obama had the perfect opportunity to change the narrative — to remind Americans that tough government regulations are necessary to prevent unfettered capitalism from pillaging the economy. But he hasn’t done it. He’s the most gifted spokesman the Dems currently have in office, but he has not constructed a narrative that helps voters to understand what has happened.
(Republicans, of course, say it’s all about Obama’s policies. It isn’t. It’s all about the story they’ve told about the policies. Independents don’t hear about health care for all; they hear about a big, stinkin’ “government takeover.” How can it be a government takeover when insurance will still be largely provided by private insurers?)
It’s not clear why Obama has gotten it so wrong. He may have misjudged Republicans, trusting them to be a loyal opposition when, instead, they’ve been obstructionists who only care about trashing his presidency. He may have made the classic Democratic mistake — thinking that voters will remember the facts. They don’t. They have to be told over and over and over.
But it’s more likely that the cool and cerebral Obama simply didn’t want to engage in the continual trashing of the opposition that it takes to be successful in American politics these days. If he can’t find a way to do that, he’ll be a one term president.