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The bogus presidential "salesman" narrative

Topics: Barack Obama

Back in January, I predicted that the likely decline in President Obama's political standing due to the state of the economy and an unfavorable political environment would spur the press to generate "elaborate narratives about how the character, personality, and tactics of the principals in the White House inevitably led them to their current predicament."

The latest pundit to engage in this dubious exercise is Slate's John Dickerson, who has written an article attributing the relatively weak support for Obama and his policies to a failure of salesmanship (via Mickey Kaus):

Death of a Salesman
A slew of new polls suggest Obama is not a great pitchman for his policies.

...Economists may say, yes, the economy is recovering... but the country says no... [A] slew of recent polls ... suggest that the administration's summer tour will do little to improve the president's political fortunes and those of his party...

[W]hat's so bad about these surveys is that they paint a very dark picture about the president's ability to brighten the future. If Obama can't improve things for Democrats, no one can. And as bad as the president's numbers are, the Democrats in Congress are in even worse shape.

Candidate Obama used to joke about rays of sunshine coming in when he started to speak. Now he brings the clouds. He's spent a great deal of time talking about the Recovery Act and health care reform, but the political fortunes of those programs are dismal, which suggests his ability to persuade and change minds is seriously damaged.

He has been trying to sell the success of his stimulus legislation for months in speeches, interviews, and events all over the country. In the CBS poll, only 23 percent think it has helped the economy. Only 13 percent think it has helped them personally. Despite all of his efforts, people are either ignoring him or tuning him out--or they can't hear him over the bad economic news. Whatever the reason, the best argument Obama has for how he and Democrats have addressed the issue people care the most about is one that people aren't buying.

The situation on health care is worse... The president has worked hard to improve the political fortunes of health care, but it hasn't worked...

In reality, however, there's no evidence that Obama has become any less effective as a salesman -- as I've repeatedly pointed out over the years (e.g. here, here, here, and here), presidents can rarely generate significant shifts in public opinion in support of their domestic policy agenda. Obama's failure to generate increased support for the stimulus and health care is not the least bit surprising, especially given the political environment in which he's operating.

The larger problem with this analysis is that Dickerson is constructing a post hoc narrative about Obama's poll numbers using the epistemology of journalism, which treats tactics as the dominant causal force in politics. Within that worldview, if Obama's numbers used to be high and they are now low, the only logical conclusion is that "his ability to persuade and change minds is seriously damaged." The idea that Obama's numbers have declined across the board in large part due to the state of the economy is only briefly acknowledged ("or [the public] can't hear [Obama] over the bad economic news").

Update 7/15 11:08 AM: Jay Rosen flags another great example -- a long Harris and VandeHei piece for Politico that puts far too much weight on Obama's alleged political failings relative to the economic and political fundamentals:

The problem is that he and his West Wing turn out to be not especially good at politics, or communications -- in other words, largely ineffective at the very things on which their campaign reputation was built. And the promises he made in two years of campaigning turn out to be much less appealing as actual policies...

Democrats privately complain that the real power center -- the West Wing staff -- isn't nearly as impressive [as his Cabinet]. A common gripe on the Hill and on the lobbying corridor is that the communications team isn't great at communicating, the speech-writing team isn't great at speech writing (exemplified by Obama's flaccid Oval Office speech last month on the BP spill and energy policy) and the political team often botches the politics...

Obama is swimming up Niagara until joblessness improves. But, even while Obama doesn't directly control the economy, he has not been a disciplined or effective communicator about the state of the economy and his prescriptions for it. People will tolerate a weak economy if they feel there is an upward trajectory. But Obama has not managed to instill that confidence...

The article does contain a few brief acknowledgments that Obama faces a difficult economic situation ("Obama is swimming up Niagara until joblessness improves," "No politician can escape the gravitational pull of bad employment numbers and economic figures in real-time") but as with Dickerson, the implication is that the lack of popularity of his initiatives is largely the result of a failure of salesmanship.

Update 7/15 5:29 PM: CJR's Greg Marx has a similar take on these two pieces.

[Cross-posted at brendan-nyhan.com]

 

Comments
Ptolemy:

Just what explains the "unfavorable political environment" today? The Democrats started with political dominance unlike anything they have seen for over forty years. How can you not consider White House tactics or positions as the genesis of their deteriorating political environment?

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RWCOLE:

Nice piece. Agree completely. However one wonders why the dems can't get through with a few simple facts:

1) Obama has reversed GDP from a massive decline when he took office to a modest gain in the last several quarters.

2) Obama has reversed job losses from 750,000 per month when he took office to modest gains.

One wonders why the gooper line about the stimulus doing nothing to help the economy still gets echoed by the press when the facts are quite the opposite.

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Huda:

The House has done its job by passing most of Obama agenda with little fan fair, the failure comes from the dithering Senate and White House DC bubble. People are dissatisfied with Obama mainly because of the economy. Even @ his current low 40s approval, he's better than anyone could expect in term of the country's condition and sentiments.

Mostly, Americans look @ the abysmal that is his opposition: the Republicans. People see a vacuum in leadership, kinda like the devil they know is better than the one who has no policies or plans for them.

What these media narrative have failed to point out (mainly because dems as usual have no idea how to hammer on their talking points), is Obama have gotten all of his agenda and campaign promises through. He got his health care policy, whether the left or right think its good enough. He will be getting his financial regulation legislation @ the end of this week. He will more likely than not get his immigration reform and energy bill. History will show he is the most successful president in term of enacting his policies in the 21st CE. However, it will take time for people to feel the impact of his policy changes and judge it whether it good for them or not.

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Aaron_in_TX:

Yes, as far as success in legislation goes, Obama is the most successful since Lyndon Johnson.

The popularity of his programs was not realized for about 10 years.

George H.W. Bush was actually somewhat successful as well - the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act of 1990 were points of pride for him personally but he couldn't take credit for them publically.

It's one advantage of being a senator/congressinal insider and not a governor or an "outsider."

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Aaron_in_TX:

I also don't see politicians as salesmen. That's stupid.

Politicians aren't persuading anybody. The persuadable people are less than 10% of voters in any given election. Probably more like 5-6%.

Politicians are more like cheerleaders. They take advantage of and motivate sentiment that already exists. Some are better motivators than others, but it's hard to motivate even the most hardcore fans when your team is way down.

I find politics and sports have a lot in common. Behavior of sports fans & political partisans is very similar.

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