As Obama’s Poll Numbers Fade, He Finally Uses Some Rhetoric to Defend Himself

Obama has hit an all-time low in unpopularity in Gallup tracking. No surprise, really:

  1. The economy is still doing poorly
  2. He spent months talking about the debt ceiling rather than the economic issue the voters care most about — and the voters weren’t fooled into thinking cutting the debt would stimulate either jobs or the recovery.
  3. His messaging is still lame. As NY Times biz reporter Joe Nocera wrote last week, “When did President Obama become such a lousy speech-maker? His remarks on Monday afternoon, aimed at calming the markets, were flat and uninspired — as they have consistently been throughout the debt ceiling crisis.”
  4. He looked weak by the end of the debt ceiling deal — he had been insisting on a balanced approach that included revenues and ultimately agreed to sign one that did not include them.

In short, while Americans suffer, Obama focused on the wrong issue, he didn’t talk about it effectively, and he was rolled.

Given how poorly he is doing, I do think it worthwhile to point out one recent rhetorical flourish. He embraced the term “Obamacare” and turned it back on his critics in an Iowa event (video via Think Progress):

“I have no problem with folks saying ‘Obama Cares.’ I do care. If the other side wants to be the folks who don’t care, that’s fine with me.”

When you can’t kill a meme or attack phrase, the best rhetorical strategy is to reframe it to your advantage, if you can. Here he uses short words and folksy repetition. This is actually classic rhetoric — see “Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1” — which is, sadly, something the president hardly ever uses, even though he’s known for speechmaking.


Obama also isn’t known for his compassion, for “feeling your pain,” the way Bill Clinton was. So if he were to actually repeat this formulation enough, then when people heard the phrase Obamacare, they would in fact be hearing his spin on it, “Obama Cares.”

I would have said this is all rather obvious, and he should have done this (and a million other such things) over a year ago. Indeed, rhetoric was developed 25 centuries ago precisely to help people express emotion effectively. And this instance does show that he can do it if he tries.

The key, of course, would be repetition — the cornerstone of effective messaging — something Obama has not been known for at all in his presidency (in marked contrast to his campaign where, admittedly, repetition is considerably easier if not inescapable). If he were to repeat this formulation enough, along with his surrogates, it could stick. Otherwise it will dry out and die in the hot summer sun like so much drought-stricken corn.