January 31, 2012 — Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics, spoke to the Shorenstein Center about President Obama and his administration.
Simendinger outlined four areas that the president himself has identified as needing improvement: communicating effectively, focusing on what people care about, portraying a centrist image and using executive power.
What he was so good at as a candidate, she explained, ended up being what he struggled with as a president. Bill Clinton applauded the accomplishments of Obama’s first years in office, she said, but the former president advised Obama to vocalize those accomplishments repeatedly to the American public. The health care bill was the most striking example of the president’s lack of communication with Americans, Simendinger said. Had he been better able to explain the benefits of the legislation, she argued, his Republican opponents might have found it more difficult to combat the bill.
During the health care debate, Obama admitted that he seemed distracted from other important issues that concern American citizens. Simendinger said that going forward, Obama plans to focus on jobs and the economy so that the public will see that he shares their concerns about those issues.
Obama also admitted that after the 2010 midterm elections, he had been misunderstood as a “very traditional tax-and-spend liberal,” Simendinger pointed out, while he should have attempted to come across as a centrist Democrat that can “work across the aisle.” After the debt ceiling fracas in 2011, Simendinger said, it was pointed out to Obama that “he looked weak” because of his dealings with Congress. “That woke the president up,” she said, and he determined to show a stronger side of the presidency.
The final lesson Obama has learned, Simendinger said, is that legislation is not the only presidential power. Simendinger quoted more advice from President Clinton: “When Republicans are resisting you in Washington, use all the levers of power, and use your executive power.” Obama heeded this advice, Simendinger said, and out of this experience came the bumper sticker, “We can’t wait,” which served as a reminder of the president’s power over the lengthy legislative process.
By Janell Sims, Shorenstein Center.
Photos by Heather McKinnon, Shorenstein Center.