Is Obama “Not Connecting”?

by John Sides on January 21, 2010 · 6 comments

in Public opinion

That’s Ben Smith’s phrase. He cites George Packer:

Part of Obama’s weakness has been this unwillingness or inability to say a few simple things passionately, which would let Americans know that he is on their side. Reagan knew how to do it, which meant that, even when his popularity was sinking at a similar point in his presidency (remember 1982?), the public still knew where he stood, not necessarily on the details of policy, but on a few core principles that he could at least pretend never to sacrifice. This is partly a problem of communication, worsened by a tendency of the White House (as if the campaign never ended) to make Obama’s the face on every issue, so that the more he says, the less people know what he wants.

And William Finnegan:

He wants to accomplish too much, both domestically and beyond. So I see him being subtly changed by these pressures of office, becoming less incisive and cool, getting broader, more conventional, more conservative.

These perpectives dovetail with Maureen Dowd’s, discussed last week:

No Drama Obama is reticent about displays of emotion. The Spock in him needs to exert mental and emotional control. That is why he stubbornly insists on staying aloof and setting his own deliberate pace for responding — whether it’s in a debate or after a debacle. But it’s not O.K. to be cool about national security when Americans are scared.

Ah, the narrative is starting to take shape. Unsurprisingly, it’s one bereft of evidence. Consider these data from a January Pew poll. What follows is the percent who say that a phrase describes Obama:

“Warm and friendly”: 77%
“Cares about people like me”: 64%

That’s hard to square with the idea that Obama is too cool or not “connecting.”

But Packer suggests something more than style: “this unwillingness or inability to say a few simple things passionately…” I couldn’t find any poll that directly speaks to this, but consider this from the Pew data:

“Strong leader”: 62%
“Good communicator”: 83%

And consider this question as well, “In making decisions, is Obama too impulsive, too cautious, or about right?” Only 20% said “too cautious.” 46% said “about right,” and 26% said “too impulsive” (a sentiment far more common among Republicans, naturally).

None of this squares with the notion that Obama has failed as a communicator. In short, Obama is more popular as a person than a president. There is little reason for him to adjust his personality.

More fundamentally, in these sentiments is yet more primitive magical thinking about what presidents can do if they only have just the right message or right tone. Perhaps Obama could give some speech (e.g., SOTU) that would reinvigorate key constituencies or congressional Democrats. But let us not fool ourselves that effective speech-making is going to have any real impact on public opinion. There is scant evidence that speeches may much difference.

There’s a further irony in Packer’s analogy to Reagan. He thinks Reagan articulated a core set of principles, and Obama hasn’t. But then he notes that Obama is in exactly the same position as Reagan was at this point. Their approval trends are virtually overlapping. So how is it that articulating core principles matters? If Reagan did and Obama didn’t, and they were both sitting at 50% after one year, what difference does the rhetoric make?

The analogy to Reagan actually suggests something quite the opposite: structure, not speeches, matter. A weak economy took its toll on Reagan and it’s taken its toll on Obama. Presidents are, as Brendan Nyhan put it, often “prisoners of circumstance.”

There is no cleverly crafted message that’s going to turn around Obama’s approval. Nor is there much evidence that his personality is the fundamental problem.

{ 3 comments }

Tom January 22, 2010 at 12:46 am

John,

There you go again.

I wish you’d quit picking on pundits and journalists. Facts are clunky things and don’t always fit the really neat narratives that these really smart (and probably way cool) people want to push. I mean, imagine being the first to push a new theme that eventually catches on with others. How cool would that be? Should you really expect people to let things like data and evidence stand in the way of such an opportunity? I think that’s asking too much of the people who are trusted to keep us informed about events of the day.

How about cutting them some slack next time you’re tempted to fly off the handle with your crazy ideas about facts and evidence? I mean, come on, lighten up!

InOmnia January 22, 2010 at 1:03 am

In order to understand what President Obama faced upon entering the White House, one would need to inherit some of the worst conditions that our country has ever faced and be elected under the impression that change would happen instantaneously. The comparison of Obama to Reagan is rash to say the least because one cannot remedy such great problems on oratory alone and the structuring of his plan to fix the nation is far from complete. Obama has sacrificed his reputation and his place in history to protect the ideals and beliefs associated with the American lifestyle. The circumstances he inherited as President have created a cloud above his presidency and our country with the prowess and fortitude to blur our resolve. It may seem defunct in this day and age, but the power truly does lie with the people to support and rally behind their government in order to persevere and make change happen.

Matt Jarvis January 22, 2010 at 2:21 pm

What’s odd to me is that they ARE similar. As InOmnia notes, Obama inherited an much worse situation than Reagan. And, one year in, I think his situation is still much worse than Reagan faced in 1982. So, why do they track so well?

The first explanation that comes to mind is that the public has a remarkably constant tendency to ascribe fault to the last guy. However, that doesn’t quite work, because over time, Obama inevitably gets more “ownership” of the worse situation. If both O&R are “30% responsible” 1 year in, Obama is 30% responsible for a worse situation. What this would then require is that Carter was better than Bush by a similar “margin” to how much worse the situation is. In other words, a perfect storm.

I don’t know about this. I think the Obama/Reagan comparison is really interesting because they should only be superficially similar, but they are eerily similar.

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