Listen to Me, Barack!
How to sell horrible counterintuitive column ideas and look smart doing it.
On Friday, the Washington Post published the worst column of the year. It's been a long year, and a stupid year, so this is no light accusation. And pollster-pundits Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell write a lot of bad columns —they are good ways to spend the slow hours between Fox and Friends and Hannity, more productive than knitting or Sudoku. Still, the hackwork in their call for President Obama to retire after one term was something special.
How can we judge this? A typical Post column may get a few hundred comments, a few hundred recommendations on Facebook. George Will's bitter I-told-you-so about the Chevy Volt, for example, has inspired around 700 "likes" on Facebook. Caddell and Schoen have inspired almost 5,000 "likes" and almost 2,000 comments (and counting), in what has become the paper's most-read piece of the day. Undoubtedly they've inspired some smaller number of TV producers to book "One and Done" segments, even though no one buys the Schoen/Caddell argument that Obama could achieve more by declaring himself a lame duck. Byron York, the Washington Examiner's chief political correspondent, makes the obvious point that an Obama retirement would broadcast "fatal weakness," a surrender to an opposition party that's materially weaker than those faced by Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan at this point in their presidencies.
Ah, but no editor wants columns that make obvious points! This is the paradox of the opinion industry: If it sounds stupid, it leads. If it's counterintuitive, it's surely because the columnist has found a fresh angle on a mundane problem, and this angle will produce insights. Data is unexciting, especially if it's the same data everyone else has. Discussions of fantasy scenarios that could prove your theories right? Exciting! So before anyone else tries, here are six ridiculous ideas for opinion columns on how Obama can rescue his presidency.
How Obama Can Win by Leaving the Democratic Party
The pitch: None of the Republicans who may run for president in 2012 has the personal appeal of Barack Obama. His most credible opponent, Mitt Romney, will be hamstrung by his support of a very ObamaCare-esque health care law in Massachusetts. His less credible opponents, like Sarah Palin, trail him in the polls. His biggest threat might come in the form of a Michael Bloomberg vanity campaign. (This may not seem like a threat if you are a political consultant who enjoys getting paid.) So: Cut everyone off at the pass and run as an independent, Republican, or write-in candidate.
The lede: "In 2004, Barack Obama caught the nation's attention with a speech that convinced Americans he didn't see a difference between red states and blue states. Six years later, there's a way he can prove it."
How Obama Can—and Must—Give the Presidency to Nancy Pelosi
The pitch: The most successful progressive politician of the last 50 years is the outgoing speaker of the House. Liberals like her and trust her. They're told that they're going to lose the White House in two years anyway. So: Get Obama and Biden to resign their offices by January, and she takes over.
The lede: "The discussion among Democrats right now is whether to replace Nancy Pelosi with another, less liberal candidate to lead the party in the House. That's exactly the wrong discussion to have. Liberals should be asking how they can promote her."
Obama Must Cancel the KSM Trial and Kill Him With His Bare Hands
The pitch: Voters see the president as too soft on terrorism. So do our allies. Really, the rest of this column writes itself, especially if there are 700 or 800 words to get deep into the details.
The lede: "George W. Bush had his bullhorn moment. Barack Obama can have his own bullhorn moment. It could rescue his presidency—but only if he's willing to get his hands dirty."
Obama Must Relocate the White House to the Heartland
The pitch: The president's lost touch with voters and become part of the all-absorbing swamp that voters can't stand. The solution: Move government operations to Iowa or Nebraska, preferably in sight of a state fairground and at least one Wal-Mart.
The lede: "Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign was based in Chicago, not Washington, putting his advisers' heads in the Midwest instead of in Washington. The trick to his political recovery—and ours—is figuring out how to do that permanently."
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of President Obama by Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images.