Lessons for Obama in Adrian Fenty's Defeat

The president's list of achievements ought to include finding out how to get more people to like him.

President Obama and Mayor Fenty (Getty)

If one thing is clear this election season, it's that voters -- black, white or otherwise -- won't hesitate to call out the "arrogance" of their African-American elected officials when they see it.

The New York Times' Maureen Dowd reported this week that her Republican sister isn't really unhappy with what President Barack Obama has done; she just thinks he's "elitist."

Tuesday, voters in racially diverse Washington, D.C., decided that Mayor Adrian Fenty -- young, black and once popular -- was just too uppity, and gave the Democratic-primary win to black City Councilman Vincent Gray.

As The Washington Post's Nikita Stewart and Paul Schwarzman report, a string of unforced PR errors eroded Fenty's support. His city bureaucracy hemmed up a youth program run by former D.C. First Lady Cora Masters Barry and then snubbed civil rights icon Dorothy Height when she tried to intervene. He appointed his buddies to choice city posts. He hoarded Washington Nationals tickets meant for city council use. He hesitated to disclose personal travel to Jamaica and Dubai.

On the other hand, the city's murder rate is down, he has funded youth job programs and let loose his controversial schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, to clean house in D.C. public schools -- something reformers in big city districts nationwide have been longing to do.

No one -- not even Gray -- disputes what most voters said in a recent Post poll: D.C. is on the right track. Fenty got stuff done, but he's not user friendly and voters say he has to go. There's a lesson here for Obama.

Putting aside whether you agree with his agenda, it's undeniable that Obama's strong suit is getting stuff done. He ushered healthcare reform through Congress, even when most Americans didn't seem to want it. He de-escalated in Iraq and ratcheted up in Afghanistan, just as he promised he would do. In an impressive display of political jujitsu, by saying nothing on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" he got the top military brass to come out and say that the time has come to let gays serve in the military.

He passed an $800 billion stimulus package in his first month in office -- it didn't stop unemployment from going past 8 percent, but so far it has kept the rate below 10 percent. In the win column, there's also Race to the Top, Lilly Ledbetter, Wall Street reform ... the list goes on.

Just like Fenty, Obama is checking off big items on his to-do list. And just like Fenty, a good chunk of his constituency is convinced that he's aloof and out of touch.

Part of the blame falls on voters who installed Obama in the White House without listening closely to what he was prescribing for the nation's ills. But a lot of the blame resides with Obama.