The Magazine

The Unpersuasive Orator

Obama may sound good, but he doesn't close the sale.

Jun 8, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 36 • By FRED BARNES
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Let's stipulate that President Obama is a wonderful speaker, vigorous in promoting his policies and even eloquent at times. But there's a problem: He's not persuasive. Obama is effective at marketing himself. His 64 percent job approval (Gallup poll) is a reflection of this. But in building public support for his policies, Obama has been largely unsuccessful.

You'd never guess this from the laudatory press coverage of Obama. With every major speech or press conference, the media and a sizable chunk of the political community--including many Republicans--assume Obama has carried the day. Actually, he rarely has.

The most striking example is Obama's strenuous defense of his decision to close Guantánamo pris-on by next January 22 and to bar "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding in questioning captured terrorists. He gave a highly publicized address on this policy last month. After the speech, support for closing Guantánamo fell.

And this occurred despite Obama's supposedly powerful argument that Guantánamo has "set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world," become "a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists," and "weakened American national security." As usual, the media praised the speech.

The president's remarks were followed (same day, different location) by a speech by former Vice President Dick Cheney in which he criticized the president on Guantánamo and interrogation tactics. "Clearly the president is a more popular figure," says pollster Scott Rasmussen. "The numbers still shifted a little away from Obama."

Obama first announced his intention to close Guantánamo as a candidate last year. Public support for keeping the prison open dropped, in Rasmussen's polling, from 59 percent last summer to 42 percent in January. Two days after taking office, Obama announced his decision to shut the facility. Since then, the public balked. Support for leaving it open has increased to 49 percent.

Nor has the president been able to increase support for other terrorist-related policies. Public approval for Obama's policy of not using "torture" to interrogate terrorists dipped from 58 percent in January to 49 percent in April in ABC News/Washington Post polling. Rasmussen found overwhelming opposition, 57-to-28 percent, to Obama's plan to bring Guantánamo prisoners to the United States.

The negative drift in public opinion isn't entirely due to Obama. "It's not so much the rhetoric," Rasmussen says. Rather, "it's the reality" of dealing with the problem of what to do with the terrorists jailed at Guantánamo. "The more people hear about it," the less they support Obama's policy.

There may be an institutional reason as well for Obama's inability to stir approval of his policies, including a surge in domestic spending. George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University, argued in his book On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit that presidential speechmaking almost never alters public opinion.

Both scholars and journalists, Edwards wrote, "refer to the White House as a 'bully pulpit' and assume that a skilled president can employ it to move the public and create political capital for himself. The fact that such efforts almost always fail seems to have no effect on the belief in the power of public leadership."

Edwards cited the example of President George W. Bush in 2001. He traveled to 29 states in "a massive public relations campaign" to generate approval for his tax cuts and education reform. But the poll numbers didn't move. "It is one thing to go public," Edwards wrote. "It is something quite different to succeed in moving public opinion."

That Bush didn't succeed is less surprising than Obama's failure. Bush is a prosaic speaker. Obama is a skilled orator. While Bush didn't gain ground when he promoted his tax and education policy, at least public support didn't decrease.

Obama's most heralded initiative, one he's promoted repeatedly in speeches and town hall meetings, is the $787 billion economic stimulus. He touted it in his opening statement at a prime time press conference on his 100th day in office, insisting it has "saved or created 150,000 jobs." (He offered no verification.)

At a town meeting in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, in May, he called it "the most ambitious economic recovery plan in our nation's history." He said it is "rebuilding our infrastructure all across the country" and "will save or create 22,000 jobs just in New Mexico."