Politics & Policy

Obama Could Use Some Clintonesque Salesmanship

Obama’s condescending tone makes his policies even more unpopular.

There’s been a lot of talk about Bush nostalgia lately.

At Martha’s Vineyard, the Obama-bilia wasn’t moving like it was during the Obamas’ previous visit there. The biggest seller was a T-shirt depicting a smiling George W. Bush with the tagline “Miss Me Yet?”

Meanwhile, liberal writers, and even the president in his Oval Office address, have had kind(er) words for Obama’s predecessor.

“Words I never thought I’d write: I pine for George W. Bush,” Peter Beinart recently vented in the Daily Beast, in response to Obama’s vacillating and lawyerly support for the Ground Zero mosque.

Well, I’d like to return the favor, a little. I’m suffering from a mild case of Bill Clinton nostalgia.

Yes, I’m grading on a curve. I was no fan of Clinton’s — I vaguely recall predicting in writing that he’d spend eternity in Hell sandwiched between Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance, and the cast of Cats.

And while I can’t say I pine for the Caligula of the Ozarks, I have mellowed in my animosity for the man. More to the point, I miss having a Democrat who could sell.

Clinton, a political prodigy of the first order, loved the human side of politics. He listened to the hoi polloi more than he listened to the Harvard faculty. It made him a less consequential but more democratic president.

Meanwhile, Obama’s “People of Earth Stop Your Bickering” aloofness often makes him seem exasperated with the country he leads. He doesn’t seem to care what the people think. If voters disagree with him, that’s their mistake.

He’s lost — if he ever had it — his appetite for persuasion. Oh, he can explain things just fine. But there’s a difference between explaining your position and selling it. Clinton, the consummate salesman, understood the difference.

When you look back, the only thing Obama really sold on the campaign trail was the semi-magical thrill of being one of “the ones we’ve been waiting for.” He didn’t sell policy proposals; he sold abstractions. He even picked fights with abstractions, insisting, for example, that his biggest opponent in the Democratic primary was “cynicism.”

Lots of salesmen start by trying to sell you on a fantasy. That’s how they get their hooks in you. Get the customer to say “yes” in principle before he even knows what he’s buying. “Would you like to look young, feel great, and eat all you want?” That’s the easy part. The hard part is translating that abstract yes into an actual sale.

Obama has never been good at that. There was a lot of talk in the late stages of the Democratic primary about how Obama couldn’t “close.” People liked the Hope and Change stuff, but he fell short on convincing people he could transmogrify the rhetorical gold into reality. Sure, he won in the end. It was a change election, and he was the ultimate change candidate, with no real record to serve as ballast for all of his hot air.

But then came the governing, when the steak needed to outrank the sizzle. Obama has had remarkable success cramming his agenda through Congress — often thanks to the sorts of backroom deals he swore to oppose — but he hasn’t made a sale outside of the Beltway. For instance, despite a year of infomercial-level hawking, Americans still don’t want his health-care reform (the American people loved the fantasy car he described, but they’ve balked at both the clunker and the financing). He’s gone straight from messiah to Michael Dukakis.

In fairness, he’s tried to sell. He claimed the Gulf oil spill proves we need cap-and-trade. He told us from the Oval Office this week that we owe it to the troops to unite around his economic agenda. But these weren’t arguments so much as condescending harangues. No one who doesn’t already agree buys such nonsense. Rather, they ask, “How stupid does this guy think we are?”

Just as often, Obama confuses explanation for persuasion, as if simply telling us that because he thinks X, then X must be the way to go. More infuriating, nearly all of his explanations assume that disagreement with him must stem from ignorance or villainy. That pose worked a little when he could claim that opposition was synonymous with Republican partisanship. But now that disagreement has moved to the mainstream, he seems to have an adversarial relationship with the people he’s supposed to represent.

I’m not shopping for a Clinton version of the “Miss Me Yet?” T-shirt, but I do miss having a Democratic president who didn’t seem to think the job was beneath him.

Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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