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Does Fenty’s failure offer words of caution for Obama?

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What the White House needs to learn from his mistakes.

Can Fenty's missteps be a learning opportunity for the Obama White House?

There’s a story in the Washington Post that examines why former Washington D.C. Mayor Adrien Fenty lost his primary battle. It paints a scene of a group of nervous advisors trying to present Fenty with criticism he’s received from various focus groups. It paints a picture of a nonwavering if not arrogant leadership style. It paints a picture of a man who is considered by many of his consitutuents as aloof, overconfident, unwilling to listen to their concerns and ulimately it paints a picture of a man who is unable to connect with voters. Does that sound familiar?

These are the same criticism facing President Barack Obama. He has been both praised and criticized for being the kind of politician who remains cool under pressure as well as being the kind of politician who does not govern by looking at polling numbers. But he, much like Fenty, is struggling with public opinion. He like Fenty has loss the support of his base.


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The Washington Post piece paints the picture of Fenty, as a man who is not afraid to go up against teachers for the sake of improving the education of children, a man who is willing to take on the very difficult task of trying to reform D.C.’s historically flailing schools. To compare this with the President, one only has to look at his controversial reform of the health care industry. It did not poll well. It thoroughly divided the electorate, and even though he won, it was a net loss as it relates to his approval rating. Independents didn’t like the idea of government controling their health care. They didn’t like the idea of offering another entitlement during a recession. And ultimately, they didn’t trust that government could do it effectively. Progressives were not wooed because it lacked key provisions dear to them and that were actually promised during the campaign trail such as a public option. In the end, it was a compromise that even though it included some good benefits for the currently uninsured, it did not do much to alieve the primary concerns of rising health care cost.

Another similarity: Fenty loss the confidence of the Black Community in Washington D.C., who represented a broad majority of primary voters in the District. Though President Obama still has the support of the vast majority of African American voters, roughly 81 percent, that number is down from where it was when he was elected. The greatest decline in approval has come from white voters, barely more than 30 percent now support the President. The demographics where he has slid the most, among progressive and independent voters, especially men.

In Fenty’s administration, he betted on his accomplishments.

He thought that would far outweigh complaints that he seemed aloof and uncaring. He thought, overhauling the school system would mean something. He thought building swimming pools and soccer fields have a direct affect on people's lives and that will outweigh perceptions. When it was time to vote, he thought the substance of his work, not his personality would win him another term.

In Obama’s administration as the criticism from progressives mount, his closest advisor, Rahm Emanuel calls them “f-ing retarded publicly. His Press Secretary then says they need to be drug tested when they compared Obama with former President George W. Bush. As frustration over the sluggish economy mounts, President Obama keeps trying to remind the electorate that he inherited this situation from former President George W. Bush. He keeps trying to place the blame on the Republican party for opposing him at every turn. He keeps trying to make the intangible argument that even though things are bad they would have been a lot worse if it were not for his policies. Then, as news emerge that health insurance rates are on the rise and that the Democrats will likely lose their majority in the House if not the Senate as well, Obama continues to focus on what he’s accomplished in two years as opposed to offering a roadmap in which the country might clear the path to the future.

Back in 2006 when Fenty as well as other younger black politicians emerged onto the national stage, it was impossible not to strike the comparison between them and President Obama. There was former Congressman Harold Ford Jr., Anthony Brown, the lieutenant governor of Maryland, and the mayor of Newark, Cory Booker. All of the above represented a new face of black political leadership. It was leadership that was not, for the first time in U.S. history, born from the Black church or civil rights movement. They were mostly Ivy-school-educated and younger and they all ran “race-neutral political campaigns, much like Obama. Along with Obama’s ascension to the White House, it was also the rise of these candidates that seemed to fuel the “post-racial” frenzy that gripped the country just two years ago.

But those calls of “post-racial” have so quickly fallen by the waste-side, and now the country appears as tensely divided as it has been in more than 40 years. Fenty’s out. Ford, who tried to pull a little carpet-bagging ambush in New York state, is out. Booker, though re-elected last May, now faces the most massive crisis of his year.

Despite the fact that during his tenure Newark, NJ, has witnessed one of the most massive declines in violent crime in its history, just last month Booker faced an irate crowd of citizens who all had one thing in common, they believed Booker was blowing it. The trouble all began with water. But In Newark taxes are about to jump at least 20 percent, massive layoffs are inevitable, the police and fire departments will see cuts of at least 20 percent.

"He’s not a Rhodes scholar, he’s a Rogue scholar," one man said to giant applause.

Are the similarities here just coincidence, the anti-incumbent fervor fueling politics right now? Is it simply that a slate of young black politicians happen to be in power at a time when the country is struggling financially, and their difficulties are expected? Perhaps.

But also consider that the infamously embattled Charlie Rangel, up in New York, facing 13 corruption charges, sailed to victory on Tuesday night.

"Fenty is a textbook case for the risks not only of using brash tactics, but having an insular staff, lacking a sense of urgency and thumbing your nose at traditional practice,” wrote Washington Post columnist Jena McGregor. “But there's no bigger takeaway from Fenty's loss than the danger of going with your gut. While there's always a time and place for instinct, if it gets in the way of listening to the people you lead, it becomes a very real and all too perilous problem.”

Obama faces a different predicament on the national stage. He did inherit a recession from his predecessor, one that unfortunately was built on a faltering financial system that needed to be reformed in order to safe guard against future collapses. But while Fenty went with his gut to his own peril, Obama appears to be trying to relive former President Clinton’s second term, which touted the power of compromise, as opposed to addressing the needs and concerns of his base. Obama’s downfall is that he appears to be trying to please Republicans as opposed to his base. When it comes to social issues that many Democrats care deeply about, he's entirely ignoring them. So though the circumstances are different the criticism and risks are the same: too aloof, perhaps it’s arrogance or overconfidence? But it certainly means the President, much like Fenty, is simply not listening. If he is listening, he’s not fully calculating the risk for the Democrats in the fall, the difficulties he will then face in governing, and the risk for his administration more specifically in 2012.

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