The Magazine

Death of a Salesman

The more Obama talks about health care, the lower his approval rating goes.

Aug 31, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 46 • By FRED BARNES
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Between July 20 and July 30, President Obama was a busy man, barely out of the public eye while campaigning furiously for his health care initiative. He did four town hall events, spoke at two hospitals, delivered a radio address, was interviewed on two network TV news shows, and held a prime time press conference--all devoted to promoting his health care plan. On this issue as on no other, Obama personally took his case to the people.

Something else occurred during that time frame. The president's job approval rating fell 9 points, from 61 percent to 52 percent in the Gallup Poll. This was an unusually precipitous decline from which Obama hasn't recovered. In mid-August, after more weeks of barnstorming for his health care program, his approval rating remained in the low 50s. Only Bill Clinton among recent presidents had a lower approval after seven months in office.

For Obama, there's still worse news. Not only has he lost ground, but public support for his health care proposal has collapsed to the point that a majority of Americans prefer no reform at all to his plan. And the more he stumps for it, the less support it attracts. Rather than a peripheral phenomenon, the noisy opposition in congressional town hall meetings turns out to be a reflection of the deep national suspicion of Obamacare.

Two conclusions are inescapable. The first is that Obama is not Mr. Persuasive, a compelling orator like FDR, swaying public opinion with his words. Quite the contrary, he has failed to sustain public backing for his economic stimulus package, his decision to shut down Guantánamo, his proposed spending, the takeover of General Motors, bailouts in general, and now health care reform.

Health care is the big one for Obama, his signature program, the one that's most far-reaching and politically important. It's the real test of Obama. If he can't persuade the country to back it--and so far he's failed miserably--then he's not the spellbinding speaker or the master politician he's been cracked up to be. Yet the media won't acknowledge his failures. In the Washington Post on August 15, reporter Michael D. Shear wrote that Obama's "popularity and powers of persuasion may well make him the reform effort's most effective spokesman." If Shear is correct, then Obamacare is dead.

There's a corollary. The impulse at the White House to rely on Obama as salesman-in-chief, to put him on the road, is surely mistaken. For him, the bully pulpit has limited utility. In fact, presidential scholar George C. Edwards III argued in his book On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit that presidential speechmaking no longer moves public sentiment.

The second conclusion to draw is that Obama has been dragged down by his health care policy. The more he's identified himself with it, the less the public likes him. There's nothing irrational about this. Why should people without a partisan allegiance to Obama hang with him when they dislike his signature policy? There's no good reason.

Besides, it shows the public is paying serious attention to a national issue. This doesn't happen often. Democrats and Obamaphiles may not like the drift of the debate over health care, but it was Obama who prompted it. Now it's exposed his lack of persuasiveness.

What's wrong with Obama's rhetoric on health care? For one thing, he's lost control of his own message. He's all over the lot, one day zinging health insurers, the next blaming Republicans for impeding his plan, a day later suggesting that God wants his health care bill to pass Congress. More often than not, he plays defense, responding to what he says are false notions about his plan.

Yet his basic pitch is stale and uninteresting. You could argue this isn't true for the people at his town halls far from Washington. But you'd be wrong. He's been on TV so much that the folks who came to see him in New Hampshire, Montana, and Colorado--states he visited in mid-August--had already heard his spiel, probably more than once. Even some in the press won't stand for it anymore. They've finally begun to take note of the dubious assertions he repeats over and over and over.

He's suffering from a hardy perennial of presidential ailments: overexposure. Obama had four prime time press conferences in his first six months. George W. Bush had four in eight years. FDR, who actually was a great communicator, delivered fireside chats on radio every five or six months.

In our televised age, the public quickly grows tired of political leaders. When Obama spent a half inning in the broadcast booth at the baseball All-Star game in St. Louis on July 14, he was pressing his luck. Americans routinely boo politicians when they're introduced at sports events, where they don't belong. This is a healthy habit that Obama and his entourage may be unaware of.