Sunday, December 12, 2010

Passing the Mic: Yo, "B" What Were You Thinking?

It has perhaps now gone viral. The White House press conference over the weekend that featured Obama passing the mic to Bill Clinton to help him sell his stinker of a deal with the GOP to continue Bush era tax breaks for the wealthy. The idea on its face was not a bad one. Clinton, after all, remains widely popular and resided over one the most economically robust periods in recent memory. And, to be sure, on the mic--Prez got game.

The problem is not that Obama passed the mic to Clinton, but how he passed the mic. After the shellacking the Dems took recently in the midterm elections Obama has visibly lost his swag. Gone is the confident, intellectual statesmen that single-handedly took on the GOP establishment in an open public debate a year or so ago. His mix of charisma, good-looks, and high IQ meant that more often than not, he was shaping the terms of the debate, a talent not seen ... well, since the Clinton years.

The post-shellacking Prez looks tired, off-centered, and exasperated. Like he's lost the fight before he's even thrown the first punch. Granted, this could be a temporary state of being; he's been down before and has bounced back nicely--at least politically speaking. Trying to find inspiration in the "come back" kid par excellence in Bill Clinton is not necessarily a bad move on this score. That is, unless, you give him the mic and the license to freestyle. Which Obama mistakenly did. Rumor was during the general presidential campaign that Obama decided against picking Hillary as his running mate precisely because of Bill Clinton's Alpha Dog personality and propensity to stir up controversy from the time to time on the home front. If Hillary couldn't keep Bill in check, then what made Obama think at this crucial juncture in his presidency that he could.

To watch the press conference is to see Obama in a very confused and awkward state. After making a few brief comments about his faith in the passage of the bill, he passes the mic to Clinton and then says that he can't stay for the duration of the press conference because of a Christmas event that he is attending with Michelle.

The hilarity ensued, however, as Obama watched former president Clinton shift into a full brown commander in chief mode. Based on Obama's physical response--and indeed the fact that he stayed around for a significant period of time before actually leaving--he clearly realized his mistake. Not that Clinton was ineffective, mind you. Just the opposite. As he held court during the press conferences, one was reminded of why he was such an effective politician and communicator. It was, in fact, his effectiveness that illuminated Obama's lack thereof in the present moment.

Who knows if this episode will have a prolonged life in the news cycle. One thing is certain though, if Obama wants to regain his swagger and demonstrate that, at bottom, he is still the man in charge, he can't so casually pass the mic. Or, at least not to the one person that can actually match or exceed his rhetorical skills. I have a sneaky suspicion that we won't see a repeat of this political theater any time soon.