In the Arena

Respect for Politicking

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This is a very good E.J. Dionne column, especially this point:

There was a revealing moment in early August when Obama told an audience at a Texas fundraiser: “We have spent the last 20 months governing. They spent the last 20 months politicking.” Referring to the impending elections, he added: “Well, we can politick for three months. They’ve forgotten I know how to politick pretty good.”

Obama’s mistake is captured by that disdainful reference to “politicking.” In a democracy, separating governing from “politicking” is impossible. “Politicking” is nothing less than the ongoing effort to persuade free citizens of the merits of a set of ideas, policies and decisions. Voters feel better about politicians who put what they are doing in a compelling context. Citizens can endure setbacks as long as they believe the overall direction of the government’s approach is right.

I’ve always thought that politicians–as opposed to businesspeople, generals, telecharlatans…and, yes, law professors–make the best politicians. If Obama is not reelected, it will be because he comes across as disdaining what he does for a living. I don’t think he thinks of it that way, but you watch someone with a real love of the game–Pennsylvania’s Ed Rendell, Mississippi’s Haley Barbour (and, of course, William Jefferson Clinton)–and you can tell the difference immediately. The most important leading indicator of a one-term presidency in my lifetime has been indifference on the stump. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter were fine men, but diffident, tone-deaf pols.  (Bush managed to get elected only because Michael Dukakis was even worse at it than he was; ditto for Carter and Gerald Ford.)

Obama has had his moments, especially in 2008. But not very many recently. He’s an odd case–utterly at ease and without pretense when you meet him in person; different, somehow, on a podium and in front of a camera. I don’t get it. But he’d better figure it out.