Optics matter. If Washington is tumbling into a political crisis as the recovery continues to lag, maybe the president shouldn’t get out of Dodge. If the White House couldn’t fill a 13,000-seat arena in blue Cleveland the weekend before the midterms, maybe it shouldn’t have sent the president there. If an administration charged with confronting a Great Recession knew that its nominee for secretary of the Treasury serially cut corners on his taxes, maybe it should have considered other options. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. Well, here we are.
True, the big things matter more than the optics. Unfortunately, they are a mess too.
You can’t win an election without a coherent message. Obama, despite his administration’s genuine achievements, didn’t have one. The good news — for him, if not necessarily a straitened country — is that the G.O.P. doesn’t have one either. This explains the seemingly irrational calculus of Tuesday’s exit polls. Voters gave Democrats and Republicans virtually identical favorability ratings while voting for the G.O.P. They gave Obama a slightly higher approval rating than either political party even as they punished him. This is a snapshot of a whiplashed country that (understandably) doesn’t know whose butt to kick first. It means that Obama can make a comeback, but only if he figures out what he has to come back from and where he has to go.
The president’s travails are not merely a “communications problem.” They’re also a governance problem — which makes them a gift to opponents who prefer no governance at all. You can’t govern if you can’t tell the country where you are taking it. The plot of Obama’s presidency has been harder to follow than “Inception.”