The Magazine

The Obama Show

Time to change the channel.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Unemployment is close to 10 percent. The government is embedded in the auto, banking, housing, and insurance sectors. The president's domestic agenda hangs in the balance. Things aren't rosy on the global front, either. Public opinion has turned against the war in Afghanistan just as a major decision on troop levels must be made. The Iranians are busily working to obtain nuclear weapons. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains as intractable as ever. It's a dangerous world at an uncertain time, and last week the president responded by going on the Late Show with David Letterman.

It's all too apparent: Faced with the choice, President Obama prefers the comforts of celebrity to the duties of leadership. In addition to Letterman, there was his appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno last March and his running commentary in the ESPN broadcast booth during baseball's All-Star game last July. You might imagine a lame-duck president making such media appearances, but not one barely nine months into his term. Obama clearly sees himself as a sort of salesman-in-chief, and considers endless speechifying and interview-giving as the best way to further his agenda. The adoring crowds, raucous applause, and obsequious press coverage that accompany his appearances are cherries on top.

So, in order to pressure Congress to act on health care and "call out" all the lying racist nihilist cynics who stand in his way, Obama delivered his major address to a joint session of Congress on September 9. He followed that up with giant Si Se Puede rallies in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Maryland and a dizzying turn on five Sunday morning news shows. Amazingly, Obama has also found time in September to deliver a speech to the nation's schoolchildren; give major addresses on the financial crisis and climate change; and contribute remarks at Walter Cronkite's funeral. The month isn't even over yet, and the salesman-in-chief already resembles the late pitchman Billy Mays.

The public doesn't really seem to mind the president's omnipresence: Obama, as we are routinely informed, enjoys decent job approval ratings and higher personal ones. And, yes, he has every right to use the bully pulpit; presidents of both parties have done so to both useful and annoying ends. Nonetheless, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the White House's permanent campaign. Chief among them is that presidential appearances are a lot like the money supply: The greater the quantity, the less each individual piece is worth. The public is slowly but surely tuning Obama out--look at the declining ratings for his four nationally televised press conferences. And a president who's always yukking it up is a president susceptible to gaffes. Obama may have survived his latest PR blitz unscathed, but don't forget his tasteless Special Olympics joke on Leno and his petty swipe at Nancy Reagan last December.

What's truly unusual is that the president persists in this media strategy even though it shows no signs of succeeding. Obama's job approval may be decent, but it has fallen quickly and dramatically and now hovers slightly above 50 percent in the Gallup poll. More people continue to disapprove than approve of the president's approach to health care, with significant numbers of seniors and independents turning against him. Last week's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that the Republicans have narrowed the Democrats' advantage in the congressional generic ballot to three points, the best number for the GOP since 2004. And Republicans are favored in November's elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

Obama isn't in this situation because the public doesn't see enough of him. He's in it because his policies have so far failed to produce economic recovery. He's in it because his big spending gives deficit hawks heartburn. The president and his courtiers could try to deal with such concerns, but instead they devote themselves to the nostalgic task of re-creating the conditions surrounding his storybook presidential campaign. That might satisfy Obama's vanity. But it leaves the rest of us ready to change the channel.

--Matthew Continetti