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In D.C. mayor's plight, a warning for Obama

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2010

If anyone doubted the extent of anti-incumbent feeling this year, consider this:

A recent poll showed that two-thirds of District of Columbia voters felt Mayor Adrian Fenty has brought needed change to the capital. Nearly as many felt he has accomplished a lot.

But the Washington Post poll also showed the 39-year-old Fenty trailing his challenger, City Council President Vincent Gray, by 17 points among likely voters just weeks before next Tuesday's Democratic primary.

Fenty's efforts to overhaul the city's schools and cut the crime rate mattered less than his reputation for high-handedness and his alienation from the District's black majority. A majority gave him negative grades for his willingness to listen to all points of view and understanding problems of people like themselves.

Despite some significant differences, Fenty's plight may serve as a warning signal for another prominent politician who burst on the scene quickly, passed several major measures but seems often not to connect with his electorate - Barack Obama.

Their sudden rise means neither has as firm a hold on the public as more established figures might have. And there are several other surface similarities, though Obama's prospects seem better than Fenty's.

Both have developed reputations as elitist and for failing to reach out to opponents.

More significantly, both have succeeded better in devising and implementing the substance of policies than in political outreach and shaping perceptions of their leadership. Fenty, elected on the strength of a door-to-door grass roots campaign, has lost touch as mayor. He has been secretive, including refusing to disclose his whereabouts on trips outside the city.

He blind-sided the City Council on several major appointments and sometimes seemed petty, refusing to share the city's box at the city-financed baseball stadium (which he opposed).

Obama has an aloof reputation among reporters who cover him and has failed to achieve the less partisan tone he promised, though his opponents bear substantial blame. Even supporters say he sometimes seems less a political leader than the law school professor he once was and has failed to maintain the emotional connection with voters that marked his campaign.

Both have a racially mixed background - Fenty's mother was Italian-American, his father a black Panamanian - and both are self-styled "post-racial" politicians who have encountered some difficulty in bridging racial divisions.

Obama, as president, has suffered more erosion in support among the country's white majority than its black minority. Fenty has the mirror opposite problem, a sharp drop in backing from the city's black majority and steadier support from its white minority.

Neither's policies have yet to achieve their intended results, something especially damaging to Obama. But perhaps the biggest difference affecting their futures is their political opposition.

Fenty has a respected, credible opponent in fellow Democrat Gray, who promises to do better in uniting the city but is not running to reverse Fenty's agenda.

Gray represents the city's more traditional political forces but promises more a change in tone than direction.

By contrast, Obama's principal rivals are Republicans who would reverse his policies, starting with his signature health reform plan. They favor major changes in entitlement programs and economic policy, especially on taxes.

They don't yet have a leader who provides a clear, credible opponent to Obama but have nearly two years to find one. Obama, too, has plenty of time to recover his lost support, depending on how he deals with the changed post-November political landscape, how his opponents fare and whether the economy recovers enough to validate his policies.

Still, Fenty's plight is a warning that political success in the modern era is as much a function of voter comfort with their leaders as with the substance of their policies.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.



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