By DeWayne Wickham
In that awkward moment when President Obama left the White House press room for a holiday party while former president Bill Clinton stayed behind to defend the tax extension deal Obama struck with Republicans, the Democrats’ most vexing problem became painfully clear.
“What we’ve got here,” in the words of the reprobate captain in Paul Newman’s 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, “is a failure to communicate.”
While ceding the White House press room podium was no outsourcing of his presidency, it was an admission from Obama that he’s having trouble communicating with key members of his own party at a critical time in his presidency.
Communication used to be one of Obama’s great strengths. It certainly was in 2004 when the then-Illinois state senator propelled himself into the national spotlight with a speech at the Democratic National Convention that stirred the imagination of those who yearned for an end to this nation’s partisan political bloodletting.
“Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America,” Obama said in the address that began his transformation from “a skinny kid with a funny name” to political rock star.
And four years later, when his presidential campaign was nearly derailed by some racially charged sermons by the pastor of his church, Obama gave a speech in Philadelphia that convinced millions of Americans he was a healer, not a divider. “I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together — unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction,” he said.
But now that he faces one of the toughest tests of his presidency selling the tax deal he brokered with Republicans to congressional Democrats — Obama seems unwilling to communicate directly with members of his political base. That’s a serious miscalculation.
The House Democratic Caucus has objected to the agreement, which gives the GOP a two-year extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Like Obama, House Democrats have long pushed for extending the tax cuts only for those making less than $250,000 a year.
In return for giving in to Republicans’ all-or-nothing position, Obama won GOP support for a 13-month extension of emergency unemployment insurance and a college tuition tax credit, along with some smaller and less controversial tax breaks.
Obama should come up to the Capitol and look Democrats “dead in the eye” and explain the deal he made with Republicans, longtime Obama supporter Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told The Hill, a publication that covers Congress. Instead, Obama has used surrogates to convince congressional Democrats that his deal with the GOP is the best agreement he could get a month before Republicans retake control of the House and increase their minority in the Senate.
While Clinton is still a persuasive voice among Democrats, Obama, who met with Republicans on the tax-cut deal, ought to do the same with his own party. If you’re going to ask people to take a vote that might cost them their seats, you might be more persuasive if you look them in the eyes when you do.