Obama’s Salesmanship

by John Sides on July 16, 2012 · 4 comments

in Presidency

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama sat down with CBS News’ Charlie Rose for an exclusive interview which will air on CBS Sunday Morning. In the interview, Obama was pressed by Rose to describe what he thought the biggest mistake of his presidency. The President replied that he thought he got the policies correct, but his salesmanship was lacking.

Specifically, Obama said:

When I think about what we’ve done well and what we haven’t done well. The mistake of my first term – couple of years – was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.

Via Mediaite.  Zach Beauchamp suggested a post on this, suggesting facetiously that Obama’s comments vindicate Drew Westen’s argument.  Of course—given my previous posts—I think Obama’s comments better reflect how easy it is for presidents to buy into the myth of their own rhetorical power.  Maybe Obama should learn from The Great Communicator:

Time and again, I would speak on television, to a joint session of Congress, or to other audiences about the problems in Central America, and I would hope that the outcome would be an outpouring of support from Americans…

But the polls usually found that large numbers of Americans cared little or not at all about what happened in Central America…and, among those who did care, too few cared…to apply the kind of pressure I needed on Congress.


On this subject, I recommend Matthew Dickinson’s take on Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas.  He writes:

The second revealing vignette occurs during the Gulf oil spill, which dragged on for months while the Obama administration waited with everyone else for BP engineers to plug the leak.  Under pressure to show that he was doing something, Obama finally relented and gave a prime-time address from the Oval Office to describe the steps that were being taken to plug the leak.  The setting of the speech was intended to  demonstrate that Obama took the spill seriously,  but as his aides conceded,  the speech was “a wasted bullet”; “Oval Office addresses were supposed to make presidents look powerful, but the truth about  the  spill was that there was ultimately a limited amount Obama can do.”

Dickinson continues:

 What Kantor’s intimate glimpse shows, once again, is that our expectations for what  presidents can hope to accomplish far outstrips the capacity of the office to deliver.

And the capacity for “salesmanship” is particularly limited.

UPDATE: See also Jon Bernstein.

{ 4 comments }

RobC July 16, 2012 at 12:36 pm

No, it can’t be. An amiable dunce understands the limitations of salesmanship better than the smartest guy ever to become president? My head is ‘sploding.

Rob Robinson July 16, 2012 at 3:32 pm

With respect, isn’t this just a stock answer to a dangerous question? I mean, he might “buy into” his own myth, but more likely, he wants to answer the question without 1) actually highlighting a decision that has gone awry, allowing his opponents to say that “even President Obama said…” or 2) saying he didn’t make any mistakes, which would open him to charges of arrogance, etc. The answer he chose gives him an easy out.

As another possibility, blaming the messaging rather than the message sounds like a pretty common cognitive defense.

John Sides July 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Rob: Jon Bernstein’s view is similar to the first possibility you raise. It strikes me as plausible. It would be a topic worth of systematic inquiry: how powerful do presidents and their advisers think the bully pulpit is, and how does that square with the social science evidence?

Nadia Hassan July 16, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I have a couple of questions and thoughts. Larry Bartels found in his study on elections during the Great Recession that incumbents all across the world fared poorly in the face of economic suckage. Politicians across nations got burned hard by the challenges of voters who wanted help with jobs, etc. The other thing that comes to my mind here is Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro’s book and work on health care reform as well as Alan Abramowitz’ book on polarization.

That said, Larry Bartels did mention on this blog that Obama could raise his vote share if everyone knew what Obama cut taxes for the middle class. Another irony, Dr. Sides, is that you found that Obama benefitted from divisions and polarization vis a vis higher approval among Democrats and independents, but not Republicans.

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