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Opinion: What's wrong with the Obama White House?

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum says people think political strategy can rescue an unpopular president
  • He says the role of strategy, communications is often exaggerated
  • Presidents who are bad at communications have remained very popular
  • He says Obama's problem is unemployment, not strategy

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for CNN.com. A special assistant to President Bush from 2001 to 2002, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," and is the editor of FrumForum.

Washington (CNN) -- A friend of mine used to be an investor in a football team. Among the reasons he eventually sold out: He was tired of hearing everybody he met, from his kid's math teacher to the guy at the car wash, tell him how to improve the team's performance.

"If I ran an aluminum smelter, nobody would think of telling me how to run my business better. But football? Everybody's an expert."

You see something similar in politics.

When a president's numbers drop, suddenly everybody is an expert in "messaging." They confidently announce (as the NBC morning tip sheet said last week), "This White House is no good at communication and politics" -- and then equally confidently offer their bold communications strategies for turning things around.

In every other aspect of competitive politics -- from fundraising to get-out-the-vote -- nonprofessionals will acknowledge professional expertise. But everybody thinks they can do the job of a David Axelrod or a Karl Rove.

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They are wrong, and in two important ways.

First, they misunderstand what a David Axelrod or a Karl Rove does, when the Axelrods and the Roves do their work right. When the man on the next bar stool tells you about political "strategy," he usually ends up discussing political tactics: the micro-maneuvers that fascinate the daily cable shows. But these maneuvers make little impression on a more general public that pays little attention to political details. Political strategy is slower and steadier.

Focusing Bill Clinton's hyperactive attention on small-bore political initiatives that expressed his concern for middle-income families, and keeping at it year after year: That's a political strategy.

Identifying George W. Bush as a down-home man of faith who would do whatever it took to keep America safe: Ditto.

Same with Barack Obama's self-invention as a post-racial healer trying to overcome the divisions left behind by the Bush and Clinton years.

It's not hard to devise such narratives. It is tremendously hard to stick to them, to resist the temptation to chase after every twist and turn of the polls. "Turn to the center! No, go bold! Health care is issue 1! No -- it's jobs!"

A good political strategist ignores these distractions, keeps focused on the original plan, and trusts to fate. (A good political strategist will also plan in advance a plausible Plan B to blame others if things go wrong.)

But there's a second way that people misunderstand the job of the political strategist. They fail to realize: Once a president is elected, political strategy does not matter as much as is usually said.

Go back to that line: "This White House is terrible at communications."

You know whose White House was really, really terrible at communications? Calvin Coolidge's. "Silent Cal" notoriously refused to talk to anybody at all. The story goes that, when still governor of Massachusetts, he was seated at a dinner beside a Boston society woman who liltingly insisted: "Now governor: My husband has bet me $20 you won't say even three words to me. What do you answer to that?" Coolidge: "You lose."

Coolidge won 382 electoral votes and 54 percent of the vote when he ran for re-election in 1924. Had he sought a third term in 1928, he would have won even more crushingly.

Why? The Coolidge boom.

Here's another president who was terrible at communications: Dwight Eisenhower.

Oliver Jensen, editor of American Heritage Magazine, wrote a famous parody of the Gettysburg address in Eisenhowerese:

"I haven't checked these figures but 87 years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental set-up here in this country, I believe it covered certain Eastern areas, with this idea they were following up based on a sort of national independence arrangement and the program that every individual is just as good as every other individual. Well, now, of course, we are dealing with this big difference of opinion, civil disturbance you might say, although I don't like to appear to take sides or name any individuals, and the point is naturally to check up, by actual experience in the field, to see whether any governmental set-up with a basis like the one I was mentioning has any validity and find out whether that dedication by those early individuals will pay off in lasting values and things of that kind."

Eisenhower won two landslide victories in a row, and had he wished and the Constitution permitted, he could have won a third in 1960.

Why? Again: peace and prosperity.

The editors of The New York Times this weekend invited a number of people who have worked in politics to offer Obama suggestions as to how to turn things around. You always read a lot of ingenious offerings in these symposiums, but the true answer is not ingenious at all.

Deliver prosperity, create jobs, and raise incomes; avoid wars, but when you fight them, win them; respond effectively to national disasters; keep clear of scandals.

Of course, while the plan is simple, it is very far from easy. And from my point of view, it is made much harder to accomplish when you start from the wrongheaded assumptions with which Barack Obama started.

An admirer once congratulated the Victorian-era British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli on his parliamentary wit. Disraeli replied: "A majority is better than any repartee." Likewise: Full employment is the best political strategy. And when a president fails to deliver, there's not much his spin doctors can do to save him.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

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