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As the public simmers, Obama lets off steam

The tornado of populist fury over executive bonuses has forced President Obama to improvise as he worked to catch up with public opinion.
/ Source: The New York Times

To win the White House, Barack Obama grew adept at navigating obstacles. But few of those challenges tested his communications and political skills as much as this week’s outbreak of populism, in which he sought to contain, control and, finally, channel the searing outrage over bonuses paid by companies being kept afloat by the government.

By week’s end, after making a dozen public appearances in settings from the East Room in the White House to the stage of “The Tonight Show,” Mr. Obama had run the gamut from saying he inherited the problems to accepting the blame. And he tried to keep his options open as he waited to see if the fury subsided, pointedly not promising to sign a measure making its way through Congress that seeks to get back the bonuses by imposing a new tax on them.

Along the way, he turned to anger, an emotion rarely used in his presidential race.

“I don’t want to quell anger. I think people are right to be angry. I’m angry,” Mr. Obama said, his voice reaching a peak seven days after learning of the bonuses given to employees of the American International Group. “What I want to do, though, is channel our anger in a constructive way.”

While Mr. Obama never explicitly said how he believed that anger should be channeled, he essentially suggested that Americans should follow his lead: let off a little steam and move on. He wants to prevent the disgust over the A.I.G. bonuses from derailing his agenda and the broader concerns about the economy.

The tornado of populism that swept through Washington this week presented the kind of challenge that forced him to improvise as he worked to catch up with public opinion. As administration officials struggled to reconcile precisely when they learned about the bonuses, Mr. Obama sought to stop the finger-pointing by declaring, “The buck stops with me.”

It is not clear whether the spasm of anger set off by news of the bonuses paid to A.I.G. executives was a one-week affair or a sign of a larger political shift driven by a sense that American-style capitalism in the last several decades has become fundamentally unfair.

Either way, the White House initially underestimated the controversy that the bonuses would create, advisers said, which is why the president waited to address it directly. It was a pattern that became familiar during his presidential campaign: detecting trouble on the horizon, failing to act swiftly before finally moving to reclaim control of the message.

“Washington can get stuck on one thing,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president. “The most important thing that we’ve learned is to keep your eye on the ball and not get so bogged down in the frenzy of the moment that you lose sight of your objectives.”

In the Oval Office on Friday evening, Mr. Obama recorded an interview with “60 Minutes,” the final piece of business in a frenzied week of television interviews and public events in Washington and California. Even if support for some of his policies has waned, Mr. Obama remains popular, so his schedule is purposefully packed so he can be seen as the face of the administration.

But the frequent appearances by the president also helped showcase a day-by-day — or hour-by-hour — shift in how Mr. Obama responded to the outrage at the A.I.G. bonuses.

“Part of the president’s job is communicating to the American people through a difficult period of time,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. “We understand their frustration, but we’re not going to govern out of anger.”

As Mr. Obama grappled with a response to the A.I.G. bonuses, there was not a consensus among his advisers about what he should say. By Wednesday afternoon, he was borrowing a line from President Harry S. Truman — “The buck stops with me” — in answering a reporter’s question.

Some of his aides said that the phrase took them by surprise, but it was those words that were repeated on the television news.

“Presidents have never gotten in trouble when they say, ‘The buck stops with me’ or ‘I wish we could have done that better,’ ” said Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist. “I’m perfectly willing to be critical of him on some things, but I think he handled this about as well as he could have.”

While the early analysis suggested that Mr. Obama was suffering a near cataclysmic week, at least politically speaking, his advisers argued that the long-term view would be far less dire. Like his presidential campaign, which is often seen as an exercise in political perfection when viewed through the rearview mirror, the real-time evolution was often perceived as a much bumpier road.

“It’s a hell of a difficult time to be president, that’s for damned sure,” said Bill Carrick, who has advised Democratic candidates for decades. “There are a lot of moving parts here. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to apply the rules of campaign discipline to this.”

On Saturday night, when many commentators who criticized his performance this week will be attending the annual white-tie Gridiron dinner in Washington, Mr. Obama will not be seated at the head table as most of his predecessors have been. He will be at Camp David watching the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament and preparing for another week that begins on Monday morning in the Oval Office.

This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.