Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Obama’s health care debacle. See his previous OUPblogs here.
As the wise saying goes “if you’ve nothing good to say, don’t say anything.” But President Barack Obama went ahead anyway with a prime time press conference, and as Bill O’Reilly was right to observe on Wednesday night – he said practically nothing specific about what the shape of the health-care bill would look like and viewers were left scratching their heads.
President Obama wanted to let Congress take ownership of the bill, rather than hand them a fait accompli (as Hillary Clinton did back in 1993/4), I hear Democrats chant in his defense. But if Obama wants to stay on the side-lines, then he should do so consistently. Either be genuinely deferential to Congress and stay out of the picture until a consensus emerges, or take complete ownership of the agenda – don’t try to do both. Yet the president is back in the limelight doing prime-time press conferences, and attending town hall meetings in Cleveland and such. Obama should decide which way he wants to go. If he is the salesman-in-chief, then he has to have something to sell, if not his consumers would be left completely befuddled as to why he’s putting on a show for no particular reason at all.
Liberals are mad that Obama didn’t throw a few more punches at Republicans. I think many are unwilling to admit the more pointed fact that he just didn’t do a very good job at all, because he didn’t have much to say.
So Wednesday’s press conference was a squandered opportunity. We are not in 2008 anymore when Barack Obama would announce that he is giving a speech and the whole world would stop to listen. The clock is ticking on his presidential luster, and the next time he says “hey, listen to me,” it’s going to be that much harder.
Let us be clear why health-care reform has stalled, at least till the Fall. Because the Congress, and in particular the Senate Finance Committee could not agree on a way forward. I don’t see why the President and his advisers thought that a prime time press conference last Wednesday night would have gotten things moving. In fact it probably achieved the exact opposite, when we heard on Thursday morning from Senator Harry Reid that a Senate vote before the August recess would not be possible. The president’s time would have been better spent persuading his former colleagues up on the hill in private conversations to compromise on a bill. When they’ve got a bill and all/most are united, then go out and do the media blitzkrieg, by all means. Wednesday night just wasn’t the time for that.
So it looks like the Permanent Campaign is back. The President has chosen to go back to campaign mode, selling himself. Because without a specific plan to sell, all his public appearances amount to going public for the sake of going public. This strategy belies a serious misunderstanding of American politics. Personal approval ratings do not translate to public support for specific policy proposals (not that they were forthcoming) – the president should have known this by now. They barely even translate into congressional support for presidential policies.
This error – of going public with nothing specific to sell – was compounded, and probably encouraged, by a complete underestimation of the push back from the conservative wing of the Demcoratic party (the “Blue Dogs”) worried about spiraling deficits. These were the people Obama should have been talking to. And given he’s still out town hall-ing and speechifying, I’m not sure he fully understands what came over him.
To make matters worse, Obama had to pour fuel over the fire of the Henry Louis Gates controversy during the press conference, accusing the Cambridge police of of a “stupid” arrest when he had incomplete possession of the facts. Have something to say about anything all the time has become the rhetorical ethic of the modern presidency. Obama’s observance of this ethic was a disastrous distraction to what little point he had to make at his press conference. The news cycles are now spending more time covering the Gates controversy than they are covering the health-care debate.
I’m afraid to say – though this is water under the bridge – that Hillary Clinton would have known better. This week, for the first time in his fledgling presidency, Obama looked like a total novice in Washington. His 4th press conference was a waste of time, and probably the first time since Obama broke onto the national scene in 2004 that his rhetorical wizardry had fallen so flatly on death ears. He seems to have bought the bad conventional advice – whenever you’re in trouble, just go out and give a speech – wholesale. The president should take heed:
1. The public is less attentive between election years and he must have something meaningful to say if he wants to keep their attention.
2. Especially on a complex issue like health-care where there are too many details to cover, the media is much more likely to jump at an opportunity to take the path of least resistance to cover something juicier, like Henry Louis Gates and racial profiling.
2. Just because the public (still) loves Obama doesn’t mean that they will love what he is doing as president (and not as presidential candidate).
3. It is often more important to talk to members of Congress – the people who actually pass legislation – than to deliver speeches around the nation where the only tangible return of applause is a fleeting sense of psychic gratification that one is loved.
President Obama, it’s crunch time. Stop yakking.