The Great Dissuader
Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
The talks were going nowhere. It was July 13, the fifth straight day of negotiations between President Obama and congressional leaders over an agreement to increase the debt ceiling. The hour was late when House majority leader Eric Cantor repeated the Republican preference for a short-term increase. But the president wasn’t having it. “Eric, don’t call my bluff,” Obama said. “I’m going to the American people on this.”
Well, bluff called. Nine days later, negotiations between Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner finally broke down. On July 25, the president delivered a 15-minute address on primetime television. And the American people responded by supporting the president in droves, demanding that Republicans abandon their commitment to low taxes and accede to a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction, and the president’s approval rating began to soar, and . . .
Sorry, got carried away. Obama did speak to the country, and the day after his speech, the Capitol Hill switchboard was busier than normal. But that’s it. Obama’s approval rating continued to fall. Congress kept working on the debt ceiling issue on its own. The president’s message had no practical effect. And no one should be surprised.
Barack Obama has a communications problem. His reputation for eloquence and argument is highly exaggerated—at best. Speech after speech, appearance after appearance, the president has failed to persuade the undecided that his views are correct, much less win over opponents. You can blame partisan polarization, the institutional limitations of the presidency, the diversity of new media, whatever. The truth is, the more Obama talks, the worse he performs.
Consider the president’s economic message. The administration’s failure to reduce unemployment significantly has left Obama struggling to convince the country that, as bad as things are, they could be worse. “A lot of the problems we face right now, like slow job growth and stagnant wages, these were problems that were there even before the recession hit,” he told the National Conference of La Raza last week. “These challenges weren’t caused overnight; they’re not going to be solved overnight.”
Talk about a downer. The president’s excuses, though, have made no difference to the 57 percent of Americans who disapprove of his handling of the economy in the July ABC News/Washington Post poll. Or the 67 percent that say the country is on the wrong track in the July NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. Obama can’t change their minds.
The classic example of the president’s failure to sway public opinion remains health care. The Washington Post reports that Obama has delivered 58 speeches on the topic since he became president. An obvious case of diminishing returns: According to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, Americans oppose the president’s health care overhaul 51 percent to 38 percent.
Meanwhile, the Eastern seaboard is littered with the failed careers of Democratic pols whom Obama tried to help. In 2009, Obama campaigned alongside Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey and gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds of Virginia. Chris Christie defeated Corzine, 49 percent to 45 percent. And Bob McDonnell walloped Deeds, 59 percent to 41 percent. In January 2010, in the middle of the political blizzard over health care reform, he traveled to Massachusetts to campaign for Martha Coakley in the special election to replace Senator Edward M. Kennedy. The president spent most of his time mocking Republican challenger Scott Brown’s pick-up truck. Brown won, 52 percent to 47 percent.
During the general election, the president campaigned hard for embattled Democratic congressman Tom Perriello of Virginia, who voted to support Obamacare. The campaign, wrote liberal columnist E. J. Dionne, was a test case of “whether a progressive who fashions an intelligent populism can survive in deeply conservative territory.” Obama and Perriello failed the test.
Let’s not completely shortchange the president’s oratory. He delivers one type of address extremely well: the call for unity in trying times. This was the theme of the speech to the 2004 Democratic convention that launched his career. His Inaugural Address, the high point of his presidency, struck a similar note. So did his remarks earlier this year at the memorial service for the victims of the Tucson psychopath. When the president speaks in the language of national consensus, people respond favorably.
More often, though, Obama uses his speeches to divide the country along lines of party, ideology, and class. His speeches lack humor and rely on the same focus-grouped platitudes—perhaps he knows that people aren’t buying what he’s selling. What specific budget policy was Obama advocating for in his televised address? He didn’t want to say.
Obama likes to think of himself as a liberal Reagan who can bypass Congress and speak directly to the American people. But there’s a big difference between the two: More often than not, the public was on Reagan’s side. The Gipper’s humor, optimism, and plain speech earned him a reputation as the Great Persuader. Obama? He’s the Great Dissuader.
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