Jonathan Chait

The Anti-Populist Case Against Obama

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It's striking, though unsurprising, that the post-election Democratic recriminations center around President Obama's alleged failure to sufficiently court political and economic elites. First you have a left-of-center columnist arguing with a straight face that a president who was closer to Wall Street would have fared better. Then  you have this complaint, passed on by Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei:

Democratic lobbyists feel maligned by his holier-than-though take on their profession. His own cabinet – with only a few exceptions – has been marginalized.

His relations with business leaders could hardly be worse. Obama has suggested it’s a PR problem but several Democratic officials said CEOs friendly with the president walk away feeling he’s indifferent at best to their concerns. Add in his icy relations with Republicans, the media and, most importantly, most voters and it’s easy to understand why his own staff leaked word to POLITICO that they want Obama to shake up his staff and change his political approach.

In his effort to change Washington, Obama has failed to engage Washington and its institutions and customs, leaving him estranged from the capital’s permanent power structure – right at the moment when Democrats say he must rethink his strategy for cultivating and nurturing relations with key constituencies ahead of 2012.

To be sure, the article contains some persuasive examples of what is either staff-level screw-ups, Obama's aversion to massaging egos, or both. But not only has the post-election coverage shorted the structural factors that drove the election result in order to treat policies and political tactics as determinative, the policies and tactics that the press has focused on have centered disproportionately on the concerns of the rich and powerful. These are the people with easiest access to the Washington media, and thus the people most likely to have their concerns treated seriously. But the overall picture of a president who would have done better if he spent more time listening to economic, political, and media elites is downright comic.

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