There are some new words that are in vogue in the political lexicon these days: optics and narrative.

Optics refers to how something comes across, how it looks to people, the impression that it leaves.

Narrative is the overriding message one takes away from an occurrence or a politician’s approach to a situation or problem.

There are three politicians who figure prominently in the 2012 campaign whose optics and narratives are major factors.

The first is Paul Ryan, Republican Congressman from Wisconsin. Ryan is the acknowledged Republican elected financial leader. His FY 2013 Budget proposal has caused quite a stir on Capitol Hill. Unlike the tepid debt-reduction steps taken by a bipartisan committee in the summer of 2011 or even the slightly more aggressive measures recommended by the Bowles-Simpson group, Ryan’s proposed budget actually tackles our runaway deficit spending head on, and posits very specific actions to bring it under control within a decade (something the President’s “plan”—he has no actual passed budget to work from—doesn’t even hint at).

Medicare is probably the biggest unfunded liability that we face as a country. The program will collapse upon itself in short order without major attention and financial overhaul. Yet reliance on it is central to the way senior Americans have come to live their lives. Any threat of reducing funding or altering the “social contract” with our seniors is regarded as the proverbial third rail of American politics.

Ryan’s solution for the Medicare conundrum includes having the States administer a customized program that is more efficiently tailored to that state’s particular senior demographics, and having private insurance companies compete for vouchers that seniors would buy from them. The theory is that individual states could administer a local program more cost-effectively than the distant, out-of-touch, one-size-fits-all Federal Government and that by having local private insurance companies actively compete for seniors’ business, costs would go down and the product would improve—as is always the case with open-market competition. Always.

The problem for Ryan (and the Republicans) is this: The Democrats have stolen the narrative and pinned it negatively on Ryan: “He will end Medicare as you know it! What you’ve come to depend on will be gone!” Pundits call the Democrats’ tactics “Mediscare,” but it’s effective, and thus far, neither Ryan nor the Republican Party has been able to counter it effectively. As a long-term consideration, the Democrats’ refusal to address the problem has ensured Medicare’s catastrophic failure, but they’ve won the short-term narrative as it pertains to the 2012 election. So far, anyway.

The second politician in this group is Mitt Romney. The presumptive Republican Presidential nominee, Romney is a formidable and attractive political figure on many counts. Well-spoken, handsome, telegenic, and giving off an aura of both competence and confidence, he is no doubt a more formidable challenger to President Obama than either Santorum or Gingrich.

But like tennis, unforced errors are the most damaging of all. Romney is wealthy. He is a successful businessman, and has earned a fortune through shrewd business dealings and savvy investing. He is right on the edge of what the average person considers “too rich.” Yet if he demonstrates a real empathy for the average worker and has a viable plan to revive job growth and the economy, people will disregard his wealth, or even view it as a job qualification.

But if he flaunts his wealth in a way that people regard as callous or unthinking, it will work to his detriment. Romney is building a house in California, and apparently it includes a car elevator. One can only imagine why. But the Democrats have jumped on this to portray Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy who has nothing in common with the average working person. Their implication is clear. If ever there was a definition of bad optics, this is it. Romney should have delayed building the house until after the election and denied the Democrats the easy point off the unforced error.

But while Ryan is losing the narrative and Romney has an optics problem, President Obama is encumbered with both. The oral arguments before the Supreme Court for Obamacare went very badly for the White House. Most judicial observers reported that it’s quite likely that the Patient Mandate aspect of the bill—O’care’s central tenet—will be struck down as unconstitutional. If that happens, then the rest of the bill is also in jeopardy, throwing his signature achievement into the trash heap in a most unceremonious fashion.

Immediately after the negative reports began to surface, the President went into full pre-emptive attack mode. He called the possibility that the Supreme Court would have the unmitigated temerity to overturn his bill “unprecedented” (even though it demonstrably was not), he castigated the court for being “political” and practicing unwarranted activism, “…exactly what Republicans are always accusing the Courts of doing.”

The President came across as whiny and petty, overtly political, and a sore loser, assuming the Court’s decision does eventually go against him. Like Romney and his car elevator, the optics were bad for the President. Very undignified and unbecoming of the supposedly refined highest office-holder.

But the optics aren’t President Obama’s biggest problem. Not by a long shot. His problem with the possibility of Obamacare’s being found unconstitutional by the Court is the narrative that will result: the overriding takeaway by the public will be that the President is incompetent, undisciplined, egotistical to a fault, and has put his own personal desire for acclaim ahead of the country’s well-being.

Obama is supposed to be a Constitutional scholar. He led the Harvard Law Review. He taught Constitutional Law at the university level. One has the realistic expectation that he—more so than almost any president before him—ought to know when a bill is constitutional and when it skates too close to the edge for legal comfort. It’s obvious he either clearly didn’t know or had such a high opinion of his own self-importance that the Court couldn’t possibly find against him, given the magnitude of what he was doing. (Whether he was doing it for the good of the country or to secure his spot in history as “the President who solved the health-care conundrum where no one else could” is open to question. Or not.)

Then there is the mess that will remain if the Mandate (or the entire bill) is struck down. What happens then? What is still in place and what goes back to the previous way of doing things? Who is going to clarify that? The healthcare system will be in shambles, and Obama will get the blame—rightly—for putting forth a bill that he should have known was not likely to pass Court muster in that form.

Above all this is the unmistakable and undeniable notion that President Obama worked on his ego-satisfying healthcare bill even while the country languished in the depths of economic despair. In 2009, unemployment, the finance system, and basic confidence in our country’s ability to function economically were all at post-Depression low points, yet the President’s response in that painful first year was to put forward a wasteful, ineffective, horrendously expensive “stimulus” bill (that accomplished nothing) with only Democratic support. He has barely paid attention to our fundamental economic problems or to energy pricing, choosing instead to burden the business sector with uncertainty, over-regulation, and the threat of ever-increasing taxes, while he worked on Obamacare.

If Obamacare is struck down and the economy continues its tepid, historically worst-ever “recovery,” then the narrative will be that President Obama has completely wasted his term in office chasing a pipedream, that his priorities were all wrong, that he should have had a clear grasp on the Constitutionality of his healthcare attempt (after all, that is supposedly his area of expertise), and that he put his own glory ahead of putting people back to work.

Those are his optics and that is his narrative. Neither looks good.

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