President Obama's On-The-Job Training

Nobody since Lyndon Johnson has anything like the political instincts Bill Clinton was born with. At the end of a conversation about childhood obesity last week, I asked the former president about partisanship in the capital, and out came a shrewd assessment of American politics and of President Obama. "There are objective reasons that huge numbers of Americans are confused, angry, frustrated, and afraid," said Clinton. "In that environment, the proper response is relentless explanation. The president made a real effort to move away from conventional eloquence toward explanation in the State of the Union speech. That's the right move. Everybody knows he can give a pretty speech. But if you give me a pretty speech and I'm scared to death, I think you're trying to put something over on me. Whereas if you explain something to me, even if I don't entirely understand it, even if I don't agree with you, you have nevertheless honored me. And so it was partisan then, it's partisan now. I got better at dealing with it and so has he. If they can make this health-care thing work between now and November, [they take] some job-generating actions in the energy area, and show that he's credible on the budget thing, then it will probably work out well for him." Optimistic, yes, but if you had come back from crisis as often and as well as Bill Clinton has, you'd be optimistic, too.

Relentless explanation is a memorable phrase—or at least it ought to be remembered. Whatever the fate of health-care reform, the complexity of the problem and the president's failure to use his rhetorical skills to make the essence of the legislation intelligible complicated the reform effort. I hate being second-guessed—and admit it, you do, too—but being the recipient of unsought counsel and glib analysis is as much a part of the presidency as Air Force One or the Rose Garden.

So here goes. The irony of Obama's administration thus far is that he has been professorial without teaching us and eloquent without moving us. He is not pedantic, certainly, and Lord knows he has a Clintonian capacity to absorb and articulate great masses of information. As we have argued before in the magazine, the issue is that the president fails what veteran politicians call the "15- to 20-word test": in politics, if you can't answer a question in 15 to 20 words, you are not going to get through to your interlocutor. What Clinton calls Obama's "pretty speeches," meanwhile, has not produced an identifiable vision of how the disparate policy issues the president faces create a coherent whole.

He needs to address this going forward. Like all presidents, Obama has two interlocutors: the present and the future. On the one hand is the perilous and exhausting minute-to-minute grind of governing, the seemingly insatiable need to placate lawmakers, woo the public, and manage the press. On the other is posterity, in both substantive and reputational terms. What eases the trials of the moment does not automatically translate into a long-term benefit for either the country or the given president's historical stock. It could be argued that the two are inextricably linked, for there is no hope of accomplishing the second without doing the first well.

That argument, however, would be wrong. Often what hurts the most in political terms in the short run is the best thing on the merits and for a president's legacy. (My friend Michael Beschloss wrote the book on the subject, Presidential Courage.) My favorite recent example—recent in a historical sense, anyway—is George H.W. Bush's 1990 budget deal, a step toward fiscal responsibility that cost him the Republican base and helped give the White House to Clinton. Obama, who knows history and thinks in narrative terms (remember, he has written two memoirs and is not yet 50), is most likely telling himself that the push to enact the health legislation was worth the cost. If it works, he fought the good fight. If it does not, well, he fought the good fight.

But his life and the life of the nation would be a good bit easier in the coming years if he undertook the unpopular armed with the lessons of his first great battle, over health care. First, explain relentlessly. Second, tell us how what you are explaining will lead us to a better place, and describe that place. Assume nothing; repeat yourself until you are numb. Only then will the message begin to sink in. It is a curious irony that Obama has been hobbled by a failure to communicate, but he has. The good news is, as Bill Clinton can tell you, there's always tomorrow.