There are limits to what a great communicator can accomplish if he is communicating the wrong message. In the last few weeks, Barack Obama has been receiving a lesson in this truth and learning, perhaps, too, that he, in the words of his less audibly gifted predecessor, “misunderestimated” why he won the presidency.
On Sunday the prolific and (over the last two presidential elections) the nation’s most accurate pollster, Scott Rasmussen, reported that 40 percent of likely voters now “strongly disapprove” of President Obama. On Inauguration Day that number stood around 15 percent, with “strong approval” ratings over 40 percent (today “strong approvals are down to 29 percent). This is a big and in some respects unprecedented change in a very short time. What is going on?
Certainly the President’s health care reform push is part of it. A glance at the trend lines shows a big drop in presidential approval ratings beginning in mid-June, about when the White House started to drive health reform hard. This snake oil is not selling. Even before last Wednesday’s misconceived press conference – one of the worst in presidential history – it was becoming evident from the polling that the more the president talked about this reform, the less credible and popular he became.
But the trend started much earlier, sometime between late-February and mid-March. Looking back, the most revealing moment of the Obama presidency to date was when Ramm Emanuel famously said of the financial downturn, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
He meant that, thanks to the financial upheaval the Obama people inherited, the President had a free hand to drive as far and as fast as he could. The election vindicated of the old liberal social democratic agenda, with health care as just one of many big-ticket items. Ronald Reagan was out. Franklin Roosevelt was back in. What a mistake.
What the Obama people failed to understand was that the election of Mr. Obama in 2008 began in 2005. That was when pollsters started picking up that a big segment of George W. Bush’s 2004 vote was becoming disaffected, not over Iraq (as many Democrats later imagined) but over spending. This group was enraged by the growing deficits, saw passage of the Medicare prescription drug benefit in the first Bush term as a minus, not a plus, and later in the second term was repulsed by the emblematic Alaskan bridge to nowhere. So they abandoned the GOP in 2006. In 2008, they remained disaffected. Many were attracted to Mr. Obama personally and embraced the historic change he seemed to epitomize regarding race. The result was that again they voted Democrat.
Since Inauguration Day, the President and his advisors have acted as if they were determined to drive this group back into Republican arms. A trillion dollar stimulus package followed by a budget with a trillion dollar deficit followed by a trillion dollar health care package: next to this crowd, the big-spending Republican Congresses have begun to look parsimonious.
Here is the White House’s dilemma, though probably not one they have yet recognized: They are excellent communicators, so when they speak, people understand. But the people – the people who have been swinging between the two parties over the last half-decade – do not like what the White House is telling them about its plans for the nation.
All the communications in the world won’t help. Unless the President and his advisors correct their “misunderestimation” of why they are in office and of those that put them there, their troubles will continue. Who knows? We might even see a Republican House if not Senate elected in 2010.
Clark S. Judge is managing director of the White House Writers Group, Inc., a high-stakes policy and communications firm in Washington. He was a special assistant and speechwriter to President Reagan.