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Good at campaigning, bad at governing

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.


The old house leans unnaturally westward along a back road, as if chasing the setting sun into a surrounding meadow. Wildflowers splinter its wooden porch planks; a lonely patch of red paint marks an exterior long ago bleached by weather and neglect.

Less than 200 miles southeast, blocks from the White House, a row house in a once predominantly black middle-class neighborhood has stood vacant for at least a decade, surrounded by gentrified upscale homes.

Passing each structure, one imagines the laughing, living, loving and grieving that once filled their walls. You wonder what circumstances left behind someone's pursuit of “The American Dream” when the owners passed on.

Life has a peculiar way of complicating our planning for what lies ahead. Sometimes, we turn a blind eye because we don't want to deal with such unpleasantness as our own mortality; other times, we ignore problems brewing right under our noses, in the hope they'll go away or someone else will manage them.

Most folks don't have managers. Most politicians have so many managers that it hampers their ability to perform basic skills — driving, grocery shopping — like the rest of us.

The rules of a good campaign are simple and finite: You win, they lose.

The rules of good governing are not so simple or finite. They are messy and require relationships, understanding your opponents, and the ability to go into a room with pretty specific tools — sharp elbows, compromise, a resolve to get what you want, regardless of the political stakes.

President Obama is a good campaigner. He won the big one twice and effectively made Republicans question their electoral existence. He also has shown once again, by not effectively managing his own agenda, that he has no appetite for governing.

Nothing proved that more than his approach to gun-control legislation.

Yes, he made lofty speeches, emotionally gripped the hands and shoulders of gun-crime victims, held dinners with Republicans and conservative Democrats whom he needed to pass a gun bill — all great theater, but great theater is rarely enough.

The truth is, Obama has serious coalition-management issues and lacks basic managerial competency. Tactically, he chose to act blustery and self-righteous while, strategically, he sought the path of least resistance in actual negotiations and willingly outsourced the details of legislative agreement to others.

All in all, he vastly underestimated how his tactics undermined his strategic goals.

That is an unnerving prospect for supporters of immigration reform as that proposal makes its way to the forefront of congressional debate.

Obama had everything he needed to get a gun bill passed — support in the polls, raw empathy for recent victims, Senate members willing to cross the aisle — yet he never dirtied his hands to get the job done.

“Obama is a great orator but a lousy convincer,” explained Steffen Schmidt, Iowa State University political science professor.

Schmidt said Obama “just does not have the skill set or the self-confidence to get into the Jell-O pit and wrestle with the members of his own party and a few Republicans to close the deal ... another skill he doesn't have is to log-roll and cut deals in a pragmatic way.”

Lyndon Baines Johnson was the master of those skills, especially regarding the civil-rights acts of the 1960s — the most politically difficult legislation since abolition, which took a bloody civil war to resolve.

Bill Clinton also was a master of the bipartisan deal.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was able to command respect. Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush both effectively used the power of a war crisis to turn Congress into putty in their hands.

“I believe that there will be neither any new gun control nor immigration reform (because) Obama is not a deal-maker,” Schmidt predicted.

Obama is the manager of his legacy. On guns, his approach was to polarize the issue and to neglect the hard work needed to win passage — making him the political equivalent of one of those abandoned homes.

Now, it will be interesting to see how he manages immigration reform. Will he get involved, or leave it all up to Congress and blame that institution when things don't go his way?

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or

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