President Obama appeared on Univision today, and Jorge Ramos asked what the president considers his greatest failure since taking office. Republicans and some political reporters seem pretty excited about the answer, but I'm at a loss to explain why they're worked up.
For those who can't watch clips online, Obama initially mentioned his disappointment on not having passed comprehensive immigration reform, but then spoke to a larger concern.
"The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."
Ben Smith argued this might be the biggest "gaffe" of Obama's presidency. Zeke Miller said the comment "seemed to undercut a central premise of his 2008 election." Indeed, the YouTube clip included above was posted by the Republican National Committee's rapid-response team, as if the excerpt -- in which Obama clearly talks about the importance of Republican obstructionism in explaining what ails the political process -- was self-evidently embarrassing for the president.
I can usually understand when some random comment gets Republicans and political reporters riled up, but this one's even thinner than most. The president, right or wrong, believes that real political change is dependent on outside-the-Beltway activism, pressuring policymakers to do the right thing -- the whole notion of politics from the grassroots up. That's not a "gaffe"; it's not even new -- Obama has said this repeatedly, before and after his election.
One can argue about whether this assessment is accurate, but to consider it controversial seems pretty strange, even by the standards of the 2012 race.
It's a strained interpretation, but I suppose the reporter/Republican argument would be, "Obama made it sound as if there's no point in voting for him, since 'you can't change Washington from the inside.'" But that's silly -- Obama believes he can't change Washington, or major national policy, or the nation's direction by himself, and he's right. It's a cooperative process, dependent on engaged citizens and more than one branch of government.
I guess some are getting tired of the "47 percent" story, but to make a fuss over this is to try too hard to change the subject.
Update: As part of his answer, which the RNC left out of the video, Obama talked about doing more in a second term to engaged in "more of a conversation with the American people so they can move these issues forward." This context makes the so-called "gaffe" even less controversial and more mundane.
Here's a transcript of Obama's next sentences, not shown in the clip: "That’s how I got elected, and that’s how the big accomplishments like health care got done, was because we mobilized the American people to speak out. That’s how we were able to cut taxes for middle class families. So something that I’d really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people so that they can put pressure on Congress to help move some of these issues forward." This isn't at odds with the 2008 message; it's the whole point behind "yes we can."
Second Update: Romney mentioned Obama's remarks three times at the beginning of his rally in Sarasota. It's almost as if our political discourse is getting dumber as the election draws closer.