By Peter Nicholas, Tribune Washington Bureau
November 19, 2010
Reporting from Washington —Two of the Democrats' most prominent political strategists gave a withering verdict on President Obama's performance in the midterm election campaign, describing his message as utterly out of touch with the pain voters are enduring in the economic downturn.
James Carville and Stanley Greenberg, both former advisors to ex- President Bill Clinton, said Thursday that Obama wrongly tried to paint the economy as making a comeback worthy of an election day reward – an assessment that didn't ring true to the average voter.
"This is an almost Depression-like economic crisis that they minimized,'' Greenberg told reporters at a breakfast meeting. "They predicated everything as looking back – we got them out of the ditch. They're still in the middle of a crisis. This was a total mis-framing of the moment.''
Offering advice on how Obama can recover, Greenberg suggested something rare in presidential politics: a mea culpa.
"I don't think there's any reason why you can't reset and start over,'' he said. "I think you can say, 'Got it wrong.' …. Voters actually are pretty forgiving of leaders who indicate that they've learned something.''
Carville, repeating an off-color line from the 2008 presidential campaign, suggested that Obama lacked the masculine fortitude of one of his Cabinet members: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The White House dismissed the criticism.
"It is unclear to me what the difference in the election would have been reading Stan’s (Greenberg) memos versus what the President was saying," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters. "They don’t put those memos at Silverbullet.com. It was a tough political" climate.
Greenberg's critique centered on Obama's basic midterm campaign stump speech. Speaking at campaign rallies through the fall, Obama would repeat the same story about how the Republicans had driven the "car'' – a metaphor for the economy – into the ditch and then stood by and watched as Democrats tried to pull it out and restart it. In an embellishment savored by 7-11, he said the Republicans were sipping "Slurpees'' while Democrats struggled to drag the "car'' to safety.
Trying to accent the positive, Obama would also repeat that the private sector was adding jobs month after month – little consolation to people anxious about an unemployment rate near 10%.
Greenberg said the president seemed to be offering the private sector job numbers as a kind of monthly "report card'' that merited a reward from the voters.
"I'm just totally perplexed,'' Greenberg said. Obama's tone was "lighthearted,'' he added, even though the nation's troubles are not "trivial.''
"A metaphor about a car in the ditch when people are in trouble and angry about the abuse of Wall Street is just out of touch with what's going on,'' Greenberg added.
Focus groups showed that voters recoiled over claims that the White House's economic policies were helping matters, Carville said.
"People would get mad!'' Carville said. "Most of the time you have a message that's not very good; it goes in one ear and out the other. This one went in one ear and went right to the brain.'' (Continues here)