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Obama’s Skills on the Campaign Trail Explain His Haplessness in the White House

We've just witnessed an episode of political strategy of such creativity and nerve that journalists and political consultants may well be talking about it decades from now: Barack Obama's reelection campaign recast Mitt Romney's most formidable asset, his business career, from an image of a successful investor in startup businesses, to that of a trimmer, manipulator, tax-evader, and destroyer of value.

Questions about Romney's ambiguous role in Bain Capital from 1999 through 2002, and Bain's role in squeezing profit out of companies it owned, are likely to recur throughout the 2012 campaign. The focus on Romney's taxes creates a nice setup to a debate about Paul Ryan's budget and the high-end tax cuts that both Ryan and Romney advocate. And Obama team deserves credit for letting Obama himself deliver the message (something conventional wisdom on negative campaigning discourages), while crafting at least two brilliant ads that managed to simultaneously mock Romney and cast serious doubt on his Bain career without going over the top. 

In terms of sheer aesthetic merit, it’s a strategy that measures up with Obama’s gambit to secure the Democratic nomination in 2008 by means of grinding out delegates in caucus states. But if there was a greater lesson to that latter performance it’s been that campaign politics and the politics of the presidency aren’t the same thing. Many admirers of the 2008 campaign, myself included, imagined that an Obama White House would show greater political savvy than previous Democratic administrations. But, of course, that hasn’t been the case. The Obama operation that has been so brilliant at the running for office has never been quite as good at the politics of being president.

Certainly, there have been some brilliant political maneuvers over the past several years—among them, the decision to follow Nancy Pelosi's lead and insist on finishing health reform even after the 2010 electoral defeats. And negative achievements never get enough credit: Avoiding any kind of distracting scandal for the entire first term is more than Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter could achieve. Rep. Darryl Issa's investigations of the loans to Solyndra and “Fast and Furious” have amounted to very little.

But on balance, the tactical genius that beat the odds in the 2008 nomination fight, and seems to be defining the narrative against Mitt Romney, has been absent from the White House. It hasn't used the power of the executive branch aggressively enough to fill judicial and agency appointments. On budget matters, it persisted too long in a strategy based on the idea that bipartisan cooperation could be found, recognizing too late that it couldn't. It didn't craft a strong, persuasive alternative vision of either economic recovery or our long-term economic future, until last fall. It took a huge political hit for the health care law, in part by getting lost in the weeds of cost-reduction rather than sending a clear message of the benefits it would create for working families. Obama last week all but confessed to the “bad at politics” charge, telling Charlie Rose that his big mistake “was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right.... But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.”

There are lots of defenses on all of these choices, and I've made many of them. It's difficult to simultaneously manage an economic crisis and implement a long-term progressive economic vision. The President can “tell an optimistic story,” but he's not FDR with the whole country gathered around the radio; in the age of the Internet,  his story might not be heard. Moreover, it's difficult to succeed as president when the opposition party has determined to oppose every single thing you do, even if it's exactly their own policies; no president ever faced that challenge before.

But we should also use this opportunity to recognize that being good at campaigns and elections and being good at politics in office are, however unfortunately, very different things. That's not a surprising insight—spend a little time around Congress, especially the Democratic caucus, and you'll see dozens of people who have mastered the art of winning elections even in a hostile constituency, but can't figure out how to do much more when they're in office than avoid losing reelection. (Consider Senator Max Baucus, for example, who has won six statewide elections in conservative Montana, by an average of 25 points, and yet lives in such constant panic that he'll lose the next that he's accomplished almost nothing of significance.)

The Obama administration drew more on Congress, and was better connected to Democratic members of Congress than the two Democratic presidents who preceded him (both of whom were governors with few close allies on Capitol Hill.) That should have been a strength, but it seems likely that the hyper-cautious, risk-averse, next-election-obsessed culture of the Hill infected the administration in just the wrong way.

And sometimes successful campaign politics can make governing politics more difficult than it needs to be. The 2008 campaign promise not to raise taxes on anyone earning less than $250,000. That was a convenient insurance policy against attacks by John McCain. It was probably an unnecessary promise. And it hardly stopped McCain from inventing “Joe the Plumber,” an average striver who he claimed (incorrectly) would be affected the high-end tax increase.

But that promise has still tied the administration in knots, leaving it unable to offer a clearly principled, shared-sacrifice alternative on the budget. The simple answer to Warren Buffett's complaint that he pays taxes at a lower average rate than his secretary would be to end the preferential treatment of capital gains income—but that would have some modest effect on people earning less than $250,000. So instead some tortured “Buffett Rule” had to be created, which applied only to millionaires, and really reinforces the idea that taxes are a sort of punishment. Obama's promises of bipartisan cooperation, which probably helped him win states like Indiana and the support of a number of notable non-elected Republicans, similarly created an obvious danger once elected, because he didn't have the power over the Republican Party that he needed to keep that promise.

Obama's critiques of Romney's business practices may well have a similar impact. If he wins reelection by attacking Bain Capital's role in outsourcing and off-shoring jobs, he's made an implicit promise to do something about those two phenomena. But as president, he hasn't and probably won't. It's a great campaign attack, but it doesn't offer an answer to the economic anxieties of most Americans.

Just as being president isn't just about “getting the policy right,” campaigning for the presidency or for reelection shouldn't be just about getting the politics right. Governing is politics, as is campaigning. The only hope for our country in the near term is if the Obama team can figure out how to be equally good at both kinds.