Lessons for Obama in Adrian Fenty's Defeat

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

His advisers convinced him to spend all his political capital on the front end of his term. Plus, he bowed to the Saudi king, he didn't go to Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day and he keeps going on vacation in tony Martha's Vineyard. None of that stuff is important, right? Well, tell it to Fenty, who probably thought he was in the clear to hang on to free baseball tickets.

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In a country where 49 percent of Americans have a negative view of Islam, almost one in five polled said they believe that the Christian president is actually a Muslim. That's not meant as an observation on multiculturalism — that's meant as an insult. Yet as president, Obama, who champions free expression and religious pluralism, has never visited a mosque. And although he doesn't mind reminding voters that he prays every day, he never goes to church.

That might hearten the people who'd like to see him resist further blurring of the already blurred lines between church and state, but it's a bad look for the leader of a churchgoing nation.

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The Root's John McWhorter is right about one thing: Obama can take care of himself. If people don't like him, he can always go back to his day job as a good-looking millionaire.

But assuming that Obama wants to get re-elected two years from now, he should take note of how Fenty — a D.C. native with a model-hot wife, parents who own a small business in town, a loaded campaign war chest and a pretty good résumé of governance — couldn't get re-elected because the people concluded that he really didn't care about what they thought of him.

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David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter

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