Published September 21, 2012
"I think that I've learned some lessons over the last four years and the most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside."
-- President Obama in an interview with Spanish-language broadcaster Univision.
The Obama campaign is pushing back hard against the president's gaffe in his Univision interview of saying that Washington cannot be changed from within.
It was an unfortunate thing for an incumbent to say, especially when the nation is so unhappy with the way Washington operates. The federal government has gotten more dysfunctional in the era of Obama, despite his promises to unite and lead.
The fuller context of Obama's remarks, says his campaign, show that the president was really talking about the need to engage citizens outside of Washington to create the pressure needed to force recalcitrant Republicans to embrace a new way of doing things -- to compromise.
But as with Obama's "you didn't build that" gaffe, the fuller context doesn't erase the meaning. It deepens it.
The larger problem for the president in the interview was his ducking and covering on the cause of the attack on American diplomatic outposts in Libya. After his press secretary flipped to say that the attack was "self-evident(ly)" a terrorist operation after more than a week of the administration holding that it was unclear and apparently a spontaneous response to a year-old clip on YouTube that mocked the founder of Islam, Muhammad.
His answer there is of larger immediate concern because of the way the establishment press works. After substantially ignoring the story about how the administration could have been so ill prepared for an attack in an Islamist nation on the anniversary of 9/11, the president's remarks contradicting that of his own spokesman made the story impossible to ignore.
The thing about a story that has been ignored or suppressed by a campaign or politician is that once it breaks through, it is very hard to control. It's like a brush fire.
But Obama's "can't change Washington from the inside" blunder is more revealing about why the incumbent has been unable to dispatch a Republican challenger whose stumbles have been endlessly amplified by the press -- whose deficiencies as a candidate have been endlessly reinforced by tens of millions of dollars of searingly negative, highly personal attacks by the president's campaign.
Team Obama embraces the concept of community organizing, the candidate's professional pathway into politics, as the model for political success.
Community organizing is a concept that calls for activists to identify a problem facing a disadvantaged community and then organize its members to create pressure on those in power to effect necessary changes.
This differs from typical American politics in which candidates and elected leaders search out spontaneous, organic political movements and try to get out in front - to lead and shape those movements.
A typical example of this was the Republican Party in 2010. The Tea Party movement, which began in part as a protest of deficit spending and tolerance for big government within the GOP, was creating lots of trouble for the Republican establishment.
Being sensible and ambitious, Republican leaders decided that they would get out in front of the parade rather than break it up. By joining the march they were able to help steer the movement to an end more favorable to the party. While the fed-up conservatives have done much to change the party, the substantial acquiescence of the party on key points has helped direct the movement.
Obama should know how this works. He owes his career not so much to his 2004 convention speech that talked about no red or blue Americas, but to a blistering anti-war speech he delivered in Chicago in 2003 to a crowd assembled to denounce the invasion of Iraq.
Obama got in front of that parade and harnessed the anger within his party to unhorse Hillary Clinton whose vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq was a major annoyance to the left in her party. Obama could see the train coming, and put on his engineer's hat.
But once he found himself driving the train, Obama changed approaches. Rather than the effective opportunism common in politics, he reverted to the precepts of community organizing.
One of the great complaints of Obama's army in 2008 was that it was a top-down affair, rather than a grassroots organization. The direction of the movement was from Chicago, not bubbling up from the participants.
The complaints of the left have been largely silent owing to their understanding that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's administration would be pointedly hostile to their interests, but much of Obama's initial campaign and presidency was marked by the bitter complaints of the left who lifted him to power feeling unappreciated and not listened to.
Obama's answer to Univision was another version of what he has often said his greatest mistake in office has been -- to focus on policy over politics, failing to "tell a story" that would build consensus around his agenda.
"You can only change [Washington] from the outside. That's how I got elected," Obama said. "And that's how the big accomplishments like health care got done."
But Obama produced a health law unpopular on the left and the right. And when it passed it was already in bad odor with the electorate. Obama had attempted mightily to organize the American community behind his plan, but failed.
When you saw the White House helping organize pray vigils and marches in defense of the law, you saw how the community organizing precept works in the real world of politics.
While the protesters in favor of the law were carrying matching signs and repeating the same slogans, the protesters opposed to the law were pretty clearly doing their own things. One side looked organized. The other side looked spontaneous and organized.
Romney may have a problem with picking which parade it is he wants to lead and being willing to express the deep conviction that those already marching expect to hear, but he is at least willing to play the part of drum major.
Obama is intent on controlling the process from beginning to end. Rather than identifying the direction of voters and trying to lead and guide them, Obama is trying to organize them to follow his direction for the country.
His team in Chicago can dispatch all of the organizers it wants in an effort to create a movement focused on the president's re-election, but that is no substitute for a candidate who can see and hear the direction of the electorate and get out in front.
The danger for Obama is that Romney may yet pick a parade and start marching with real conviction.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.