Maybe no encore in 2012

Years ago as a young political media consultant I would spend hours in the dark space behind the one-way glass of focus-group facilities furiously writing down what everyone said. At the end of the night I’d have pages of contradictory and often confusing quotes from the “real people” on the other side of the glass. One night a pollster with far more experience than I had told me to “listen to the music, not the words.” I took that advice and soon discovered that I had far fewer scribbles on legal pads, no writer’s cramps and a much better understanding of what voters were actually thinking at the end of the night.

Since the closing days of the midterm elections I’ve been heeding that good advice while watching a president and a White House still trying to get their bearings after the “shellacking” taken by the president and his party. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaMan who plotted to kill Obama sentenced to 30 years Overnight Tech: FCC eyes cybersecurity role | More trouble for spectrum auction | Google seeks 'conservative outreach' director Madonna on Trump win: 'Women hate women' MORE is saying all the right words — talking about increased cooperation with Republicans and a consensus approach to developing policy, and even skirting the edges of apologizing for his contribution to the divisive partisan atmosphere that has pervaded Washington the past two years. 

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Those are the words. The music — it seems a little different. Watching the body language of the president and hearing the weariness in his voice, one can’t help but think he is tired, frustrated and becoming a bit disengaged. He seems to be a man who is not especially happy in his job — someone frustrated with the inability of the media, leaders of his own party and especially the voters to comprehend what he has accomplished in two very difficult years.

Yes, we are in tough economic times, and there are still far too many Americans who don’t have jobs. But, from the West Wing, it must seem like the nation has, at a minimum, averted economic disaster. Yes, the banks were bailed out and the wealthy were protected — but so were thousands of jobs at GM and Chrysler, and one of America’s oldest companies is back on its feet, making profits and winning investor and consumer confidence back. 

Healthcare reform, a challenge that has frustrated presidents for half a century, is finally accomplished. No, everyone didn’t get what he or she wanted, but, in a democracy, who ever does? Sure, “ObamaCare” became a prime target in the off-year congressional elections, but Republican threats of a repeal are unlikely to succeed if for no other reason than that President Obama still wields a veto pen. As with other sweeping social reforms in American history, it is likely that opinions on this president’s health plan will improve among voters over the years ahead and history will give Obama and the Democrats good marks for eventually doing something about our healthcare crisis, even though it is likely to be changed and tweaked and probably weakened in this Congress or the next.

As for the economy generally — there is no doubt the unemployment rate is too high and will likely remain so for at least half a dozen years. America still carries too much debt. The global economy is seriously troubled and the danger of economic collapse continues to threaten European nations where taxes are too high, benefits too generous and revenues too far behind expenditures. But there are good signs. Thanksgiving retail sales were strong and people look to be willing to spend money this holiday season. Hiring is finally creeping up. Economists are looking more optimistic — although voters don’t pay much attention to the views of experts many see as having a hand in the financial mess we’re still struggling through.

So if you were arguably one of the smartest American presidents to sit in the Oval office, you too might be a little frustrated by your job reviews. “Just what is it about progress you people don’t understand?” might be your reaction. Or “Just let me do my job!” you might grouse after another day of critics snapping at your heels. A man who likes being policy-wonk-in-chief more than playing glad-handing politician might begin to wonder if it were all worth it. 

Listening to the music, I find myself wondering if we’re hearing a swan song — if the next two years are about scoring a foreign policy victory or two and then exiting. Is it possible that Barack Obama could choose to become a one-term president? That he might have found the strain on his body, his personal life and his self-image is just not worth the pain? That he doesn’t love the job that much? The president and his staff are saying the right words — but the tune is just a little off. We’ll just have to see if the only one who can end this performance decides one show is enough.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcpublicaffairs.com