President Obama declared today that the most important lesson he’s learned in office is that “you can’t change Washington from the inside; you can only change it from the outside.” Even Politico, a fairly reliable cheerleader for Obama, sees the potential political problem with this statement:
The comment could seem like a striking reversal — or outright admission of failure — on one of Obama’s fundamental promises in his first campaign: If elected president, he would remake Washington.
Naturally, Mitt Romney pounced. He accused Obama of waving “the white flag of surrender” about getting government to work.
Team Obama countered with a flurry of responses. As Politico notes, the rush to respond indicates that the Obama campaign senses danger.
In reality, Obama’s latest statement, like nearly every utterance of his that mentions “change,” is nonsense. He would have been closer to an insight if he had said: You can’t change Washington when your party suffers a massive defeat in congressional elections because the country doesn’t like the change you’re trying to impose.
But even this statement would be flawed because Obama has never really tried to “change Washington.” Rather, he sought to change America through measures — legislation, regulation, and executive orders — that emanate from Washington.
That’s a sensible approach to effectuating change. Some maintain, though, that changing America requires changing Washington. Like most politicians, Obama embraced this overrated theory as a challenger in 2008. But as president, he never seriously attempted to bring about the kind of procedural reform in the way Washington does business that might make it easier to effectuate substantive change. I guess Obama has learned that you can’t change Washington if you don’t try.
Nor can Obama even plausibly claim to have tried to “change the tone” in Washington. From the get-go, his approach to dealing with Republicans was “take it or leave; I won the election.” That’s an okay approach until you lose an election, as the Dems did, resoundingly, in 2010.
So if Obama’s latest nonsensical utterance about change makes for a harmful soundbite, it will be no less than he deserves.