It has been a tough week for the president. Just as things were supposed to be getting better for him—as they were for the economy—his support and approval ratings took a severe hit in two important polls. And then there was a survey that indicated that 80 percent of the population does not consider itself better off than it was four years ago.
This sort of thing is insupportable, not just to the president and his team but also to a vast segment of the political class that is deeply and emotionally invested in his success and the continuation of his cause. If, that is, you define that cause as the steadily increasing power of Washington and the political class over all aspects of life … and most of the money.
So, what to do?
The answer is, of course, you spin. Go out there and capture the message. Seize the narrative. And so forth.
So Politico publishes a long analysis of the president’s polling difficulties and calls it, “How much do voters know?” And just in case any readers didn’t get it, the piece is illustrated with an image of Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump sitting on a park bench and looking utterly aphasic.
The voters just don’t get it, see? They lack the . . . ah, “cognitive skills.” That is the problem.
Then, anyone who still feels a need to read the piece is greeted with this opening sentence:
Voters are appalled at President Barrack Obama’s handling of gas prices, even though virtually every policy expert in both parties says there’s little a president can do to affect the day-to-day price of fuel in a global market.
If that is the case, one of those voters wonders, then why did Obama make gas prices an issue when he was running against George W. Bush? Could some of the confusion be traced to this implicit promise that he could do something to make gasoline cheaper?
And, if voters are wrong, what about members in good standing of the political class, such as Chuck Schumer, who has urged the president to release some oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Evidently Senator Schumer thinks there is something the president can do about the high, and rising, price of gasoline. Is he as clueless, then, as all those appalled voters?
And, finally, consider a thought experiment. What happens if gas prices go down between now and the election. And President Obama’s approval numbers go up. Will he take to the podium to say, “No, really, you’re too kind. But I can’t take any credit at all. Because virtually every policy expert in both parties – and I know how you trust them – says there’s little a president can do …”
The Politico piece goes on to explain that when it comes to the big issues that the Washington elite has mastered so thoroughly, the public is … well, stupid.
“The first lesson you learn as a pollster is that people are stupid,” said Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm. “I tell a client trying to make sense of numbers on a poll that are inherently contradictory that at least once a week.”
It isn’t just unclear which party’s vision they’d rather embrace; it’s entirely questionable whether the great mass of voters has even the most basic grasp of the details – or for that matter, the most elementary factual components – of the national political debate.
It is actually refreshing to hear someone say out loud what the political class thinks of the general public. But, of course, the political class has to think this way since its whole purpose and mission in life is manipulating the public’s opinion on things. And if the public were not stupid and malleable, what would James Carville and Mary Matlin do?
But can it be said that the political class has actually mastered the details? The public, we are told by Politico, is all over the map on Obamacare. Perhaps. But on the big question it is opposed. The people who wrote the bill – and spent two years selling it to the public – assured all of us stupids that it would cost about $900 billion over ten years. A couple of days ago, the Congressional Budget Office revised that number. Upward, of course. Now we are looking at $1.76 trillion.
It is enough to make you wonder why anyone should try to master “even the most elementary factual components of the national political debate.”
Unhappiness with the public is not confined to Politico. Joe Trippi, the political consultant who managed Howard Dean’s Icarus-like campaign for the presidency in 2004, said recently at something called the South by Southwest Interactive festival that it is unfair for people to be unhappy with President Obama and feel that, somehow, he has not delivered for them. “You can’t just send one guy into Washington, thinking he can change all that. Whether you think Obama did or didn’t try, it’s not possible for him to change things.”
That rings of truth. But, then, one thinks, wasn’t the whole point of sending Obama to Washington that he was going to change things? Wasn’t he going to move us past the old politics and into a new, post-partisan world? People may have been wrong to believe that but it was the Joe Trippis of the world who sold it so remorselessly. Perhaps the public was stupid to believe the message. But only if the political class that was pushing it was doing so cynically and didn’t believe it, either.
Al Gore also got his oar into the water on the great theme of how far our politics have strayed. Speaking in Texas last week, he said, “Our democracy has been hacked. It no longer works, in the main, to serve the interests of our people.”
Gore said that the solution lies in using digital media, Facebook, and the rest, to “change the democratic conversation.”
Lots more input, then, from those stupid people who haven’t mastered the “factual components of the national political debate.”
Finally, there is a New Yorker piece by Ezra Klein in which he examines the notion of the bully pulpit and concludes that as a game changer, presidential rhetoric isn’t all that it has been cracked up to be. It is well researched and argued. Also, it is plainly meant to serve as an alibi for Obama who was hailed as the greatest orator to occupy the White House since … pick one, Reagan, Roosevelt, or Lincoln.
While one is inclined to agree with the thesis that good speeches might be overrated as a force in politics and run, mostly, a distant second to the public’s sense of economic contentment, one does feel a slight qualm.
This piece would likely not have been published during President Obama’s first term when he had majorities in Congress and was okay in the polls. He had his way then but, when it came time for a referendum, the people (those ever clueless people) rose up and voted “no.” They put a Republican majority in the House of Representatives.
After that, it became permissible to call the voters “stupid.”
Things can change quickly in politics, as we are tediously reminded, and one wonders how the political class will view the public, the machinery of politics, and the gift of oratory if the economy takes off, the Iranians back down, and regular starts selling for two fifty a gallon.
Then, it will be remarkable to see just how much the public has smartened up.