Public Opinion

Is Obama “Not Connecting”?

Jan 21 '10

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

bq. 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:

bq. 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:

bq. 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.