David Plouffe Needs a Friend

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Jan 29, 2010 12:00 AM

David Plouffe is a friend of mine. Not just a Facebook friend, either, but a real friend. He writes to me, personally. "Friend," the president's chief guru wrote to me in a letter that popped into my e-mail on the eve of the president's State of the Union Address, "We must regroup, refocus and re-engage on the vital work ahead."

I'm impressed as a onetime English teacher by the alliteration and repetition that thumps home its point in a pep talk. But I'm not sure what he means by "we." His message grew increasingly cliched as he talked about "the bumps in the road in our march toward change." We've made it through "challenging times." We did all that? Together?

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My pen pal tells me the president's resolve has never been stronger as he fights for health insurance reform and job creation, reining in the big bad banks and squelching the influence of lobbyists. My friend David has been brought into the White House to revive the president's campaign, to recover the momentum he lost somewhere between Chicopee and Cape Cod. But just between friends, David, are we really yearning for another presidential campaign? Can't that wait for 2012?

When Barack Obama ran for president, most voters overlooked his lack of administrative skills and political experience and put their faith in his smooth and well-phrased generalizations. "Change" was the Rorschach test, where everyone could see a projection of himself, not the candidate.

That's not working anymore. The president has had a full year of an era of good feelings. He concedes, in a conversation with Diane Sawyer of ABC-TV, that in that year "we've been so focused on getting things done, we stopped giving voice to the frustrations the people have with the process." He takes full responsibility for not making more speeches.

But there was nothing new in the process, and it was the substance -- or lack of it -- that stoked the rebellion in Massachusetts. When senators were so transparently purchased to vote for ObamaCare, it wasn't so much the sausage-making that turned people off but the sausage itself.

The president didn't change the recipe in his State of the Union Address beyond asking others for new ideas. Scott Brown seemed to come out of nowhere, but it was the energy of lots of small, determined steps and lots of righteous anger that propelled him to Washington. His election is a reminder that democracy thrives when voters think independently. Trend-spotters are always slower to catch on to what's happening than the trend-changers who organize around change. Scott Brown is a trend-changer.

The idea that a "Kennedy seat" could be bequeathed automatically to a Democrat sounded like Massachusetts voters believe in something like the divine right of senators. A political party is not a dynasty; neither is it a family. A senator represents a variety of people with different ideas of their own about what's best for them. Divisions diminish when a strong leader, idea or a group of ideas draw them together with common sense for common cause. The tipping point is usually difficult to see from Washington and the president, who campaigns against Washington where he now happens to live, didn't see it.

When Deborah Converse, who runs a Kennedy museum in Hyannisport, Mass., was asked about Scott Brown's success, she answered with bluntness typical of New England. "It wasn't about the Kennedy seat," she told The New York Times. "I think the Democrats wanted to make it that way, but it just wasn't." She voted for Martha Coakley, but she knew how independent-minded her neighbors are, and Coakley canvassers knew the game was over when they saw Brown yard signs sprouting on lawns next to cars in the driveway with Obama bumper stickers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, born in Boston only 22 years after the Revolution and the "first philosopher of the American spirit," would understand. Our institutions, he said, are not superior to the individual citizen: "The State must follow and not lead the character and progress of the citizen."

He could have been talking about the irresponsible way in which health care legislation was jammed through Congress. Cunning can be synonymous with politics, he observed, but "the wise know that foolish legislation is a rope of sand which perishes in the twisting."

President Obama observes that when his poll numbers are low he's perceived as "cool, cerebral, cold, detached," and when his poll numbers are high he's "calm and reasoned." In his State of the Union, he was cool, offering the same old reasons for change he made in the campaign.

David Plouffe has his work cut out for him to help the president "regroup, refocus and re-engage." Otherwise, he'll watch everything go poof! Or maybe just plouffe!