Decade in Review: Bad Advice

By Michelle Railey

April 17, 2012

With Rick Santorum’s exit from the GOP race for the nomination and Mitt Romney’s all-but-certain triumph as Republican standard-bearer for the 2012 election, attention has now inevitably turned to the general Presidential election. I’m no Cassandra here, and certainly only stating the obvious: the months between now and the conventions in late summer will now be filled with two mega-themes. The first will be attempting to predict who Romney will choose to become his running mate. The second will be a micro-analysis of President Obama as both president and candidate. And within this analytic realm will come a veritable host (see how I worked that in there? One of the President’s very favorite words? I pay attention.) of advice for President Obama as he campaigns for his second term in the Oval Office.

Now, there have been times in the past three years when the President has received highly public advice from the punditry, so this will be nothing new. For example, in the time of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, there was much criticism, paired with advice, that President Obama needed to focus on the optics; that he had to connect in an emotional manner with the citizens of the Gulf Coast. In all fairness, it should be noted that the President did, in fact, end up with shirt sleeves rolled up, standing on the beach, expressing concern for the residents of Mississippi and Louisiana. Similarly, throughout the first two years of the Obama presidency, the President was frequently compared to Spock and was, usually within the same breath, urged to “connect,” to express emotion, to communicate better.

It seems to me that as the President devotes more of his time to campaigning, the Greek chorus urging “optics,” “emotion,” and “communication” will be silenced by deft manipulation of all three by a man who re-wrote the modern campaign book on all these subjects and techniques in the 2008 election.

Nevertheless, the pundit class and the Twitterverse have cut their collective teeth on one of the most entertaining—and lengthy—Primary campaigns in recent years. The loss of the GOP Primary Circus has left a large void to fill until the conventions. So, in the hours not spent divining the eventual Republican candidate for Veep, the punditry’s role as political Dear Abby will come to the fore.

And here is what I hope they will not say; more accurately, here is what I hope President Obama will not heed. It is advice that was previously given in January of 2011 by Ron Perlstein. In the Newsweek article “What Would Ronnie Do?” Perlstein offered the following (bad) advice to our president. (1.) Simplify Your Story, (2.) Create Handy Villains, and (3.) Be a Divider.

Simplify Your Story: To this voter, candidate Obama earned my vote by not bowing to the easy answer, or at least, not when he could at all help it. Obama became president because people like me appreciated very much the fact that, as candidate in 2008, he was not afraid to say that problems were neither easily nor accurately reduced to sound bites and that “solutions” were seldom reducible to less bullet points than digits found on a human hand. Candidate Obama frequently acknowledged nuance, complexity, and the foolishness of the facile response. As president, he’s generally continued with this reality-based approach. Many call this “pragmatic” in less than flattering ways. Many cite it as a weakness, including Mr. Perlstein. I cannot be the only American who believes this to be one of Obama’s biggest strengths.

Create Handy Villains: As though the world, politically and actually, were not a case of Hic sunt draconis. There be dragons here. Creating them may be strategically smart politically, but it is hardly necessary. The world’s awash in dragons and dragon-slayers alike. The more President/Candidate Obama relies on naming and making them, the more he appears to be a game-player and the less he appears to be the President. Despite the clamor, the easy and obvious appeal of it, the public is tired of games and name-calling. Leave it to the pundits and the bloggers. The president has more important ways to spend his time and energy.

Be A Divider: The nation is divided; as with villainry, there is no need to create something which already exists as the status quo. Neither is there the need to capitalize on it, or exacerbate it. And there is no respect to be found for the one who does so, presidencies aside. If nothing else, we are the theoretically “United States.” Being a Divider may play well to the base, but it seems nothing if not dissonant with the actual identity of the country (or at least the ideal that still makes us care about it).

So, there stands the Bad Advice. For good, if good there be, this voter/citizen/American wishes only that the President will receive two other recommendations. The first, from Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations the President has reputedly read: “While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.” (Or, Mr. President, “Set thyself in motion…and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it…but be content if the smallest thing goes on well and consider such an event to be no small matter.” The truth will out.) The second, as Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing put it, “Let Bartlet be Bartlet.” Let Obama be Obama. As a strategy alone, this has its merits. Mitt Romney has been called by his own staffer “an Etch-a-Sketch;” by Jon Huntsman “a finely lubricated weather vane.” Romney’s greatest weakness politically is his inauthenticity and the sense that he will pander to popular opinion to gain power because his core beliefs are either less compelling or strangely, perpetually absent. If Obama is Obama as a constant, as an authentic three-dimensional constant being, Romney can’t compete (or at least, not at this point in time). But more to the point, Americans are hungry for a real choice. Americans are also hungry for a real person (disregard the polls). They are bone-weary of talking heads and hyper-managed politicians. Let Obama be Obama. I believe no matter how anti-incumbent, anti-politician Americans get, they will still—they will always respond (whether they admit it or not) respectfully to a fundamentally honest and authentic person, even if that person carries the name “Obama.”

Leave a Reply