Successful presidents need advice of good staffs 

There have been increasing reports of presidential aides divided over what to do and increasingly frustrated by the president’s efforts to court Republicans on the one hand and to abandon some of his more liberal principles on the other.

The only other plausible explanation for the president’s failure in avoiding the obvious pitfalls that longtime White House observers believe might have prevented his diminishing poll numbers and possible electability for a second term is that he received good advice but didn’t take it. While there may be a mixture of both problems, one is inclined to believe that his reliance on his former Chicago machine cohorts was a major mistake.

Longtime observers note that a less-controversial choice than then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel for his chief of staff might have been more prudent and saved him from some of his own inclinations, namely the expenditure of an inordinate amount of political capital on reforming health care.

The ambitious Obamacare plan took a year of obsessive campaigning at the expense of serious efforts to deal with the nation’s declining economic condition as manifested mainly in joblessness. There was no consensus for this radical health reform and polls consistently showed that a majority of Americans were uneasy about it if not downright skeptical.

Emanuel, now Chicago’s mayor, did nothing to dissuade the president nor did he encourage efforts to use the office’s persuasiveness with Republicans. His advice to allow congressional Democrats to write the bill was based on Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated efforts to create the same overhaul behind closed White House doors. It was a bad decision from beginning to end, further fostering Obama’s image as a frontman disengaged from the actual day-to-day slugging it out that highlights most major initiatives. Leaving the details up to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her troops helped cost the Democrats control of the House.

But even at that, the president’s increasingly ravaged approval rating, portending a difficult re-election,
might have been waylaid a year ago by the kind of aggressive speech he made to Congress recently laying out his jobs proposals. A good staff would have seen that need and pressed for it instead of permitting the young president to maintain a posture that while not exactly indifferent was certainly above the fray.

The historic truth is that the speech and subsequent stumping bolstered by a steady stream of television commercials for the adoption of his jobs bill may have come too late. There is very little time left before the 2012 election to put the country back in a substantial growth mode. Americans vote their pocketbooks above all else. Only when most of them are working, buying homes and not worrying about food on the table will they turn their thoughts to other issues.

What the president has in mind to salvage his political fortunes seems to be to paint the warring Congress in even dimmer shades than the public already perceives them. That will be difficult, considering the legislature as a whole already is regarded by the public as abysmal.

His emphasis will be on trying to tar the Republicans as obstructionists interested only in their self-preservation and ousting him. It is a difficult situation, but not unlike the one Harry Truman faced in 1948. But Truman had an excellent staff and a go-for-broke attitude that appealed to the common man.

History is fairly consistent in detailing what occurs to presidents when economic disaster befalls the nation on their watch. They rarely, if ever, survive it.

Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan K. Thomasson

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