Is progressive messaging a “massive botch”? Part 5
The president has also suffered from an inability to explain to the public why he sought such a large stimulus and what he thought it could accomplish. Obama’s New Foundation speech at Georgetown was soon forgotten. Afterward, Obama, to the dismay of Democrats in Congress and some of his White House aides, pretty much dropped the jobs issue. From then to Labor Day, he devoted a July visit to Buffalo and an August stopover in southern Indiana to the issue-at a time when the right wing was mobilizing against him. Obama didn’t just fail to develop a consistent narrative about the economy; he didn’t really try.
John B. Judis has a must read piece in The New Republic, “The Unnecessary Fall of Barack Obama: A Counter-History of a Presidency” (cover image at right).
Those in power right now do messaging poorly “” and that certainly extends to team Obama. Since the administration as a whole lacks a compelling and consistent narrative, his speeches mostly become unechoed one-0ffs without an enduring power to move the nation (see Part 2: Drew Westen on how “The White House has squandered the greatest opportunity to change both the country and the political landscape since Ronald Reagan”).
Readers know that I am baffled about much of progressive messaging (see “Can Obama deliver health and energy security with a half (assed) message?“), where I discuss this issue of narrative at length.
To make a long narrative short, you can’t beat a horse with no horse. You can’t overcome the conservatives’ dangerously flawed narrative (aka frame aka extended metaphor) unless you can offer a more compelling worldview. Progressives leaders haven’t. Yes, I know, Obama was elected to end the partisan divide in DC. That was always about as likely as my winning American Idol.
And that is Judis’s central point:
Why has the White House failed to convince the public that it is fighting effectively on its behalf? The principal culprit is clearly Barack Obama. He has a strange aversion to confrontational politics. His aversion is strange because he was schooled in it, working as a community organizer in the 1980s, under the tutelage of activists who subscribed to teachings of the radical Saul Alinsky. But, when Obama departed for Harvard Law School in 1988, he left Alinsky and adversarial tactics behind….
During his campaign and his first year in office, he held to a blind faith in bipartisanship, even as the Republicans voted as a bloc against his legislation. He is, perhaps, ill-suited in these respects for an era of bruising political warfare. His advisers have clearly reinforced these inclinations. In the campaign, they fashioned him as the outsider candidate of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ and have extended this strategy into the presidency itself. They see him as standing above party.”¦
These efforts to elevate Obama above the hurly-burly of Washington politics have been disastrous. Obama’s image as an iconic outsider has become the screen on which Fox News, the Tea Party, radical-right bloggers, and assorted politicians have projected the image of him as a foreigner, an Islamic radical, and a socialist. He has remained ‘the other’ that he aspired to be during the campaign, but he and his advisers no longer control how that otherness is defined.”
This was not a mistake Reagan made, Judis notes:
Contrast Obama’s attempt to develop a politics to justify his economic program with what Reagan did in 1982. Faced with steadily rising unemployment, which went from 8.6 percent in January to 10.4 percent in November, Reagan and his political staff, which included James Baker, Mike Deaver, and Ed Rollins, forged a strategy early that year calling for voters to “stay the course” and blaming the current economic troubles on Democratic profligacy. “We are clearing away the economic wreckage that was dumped in our laps,” Reagan declared. Democrats accused them of playing “the blame game,” but the strategy, followed to the letter by the White House for ten months, worked. The Republicans were predicted to lose as many as 50 House seats, but they lost only 26 and broke even in the Senate.
Some commentators have noted Reagan’s popularity was even lower than Obama’s. But, on key economic questions, he did much better than Obama and the Democrats are currently performing-and voters expressed far greater patience with Reagan’s program. According to polls, even as the unemployment rate climbed, a narrow plurality still expressed confidence that Reagan’s program would help the economy. On the eve of the election, with the unemployment rate at a postwar high, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that 60 percent of likely voters thought Reagan’s economic program would eventually help the country. That’s a sign of a successful political operation. If Obama could command those numbers, Democrats could seriously limit their losses in November. But Obama has not been able to develop a narrative that could convince people to trust him and the Democrats.
Sadly, no-narrative Obama has cost the progressive movement, the nation, and the world dearly, far more dearly than most in the White House understand (see “The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 1“).
- Is progressive messaging a “massive botch”? Part 3: How bad messaging creates a self-fulfillling failure of will.
- Part 4: What went wrong in the Obama White House?