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 a President Obama. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.
Most Americans still like Barack Obama, just not what he’s doing, which is to say that while many still think he has good intentions, quite a few think that they are misdirected. And that is why the President waited to the second half of his State of the Union speech to address the issue of health-care reform which has dominated the airwaves in the last couple of months, because he wants his audience to understand that he now his list of priorities properly ordered – health-care reform after jobs.
All Presidents begin their terms in office liked and supported on their agenda – they score high on personal and job performance ratings. They then transition from being liked but not supported, and for those destined for one term, they tend to spend their fourth year in office disliked and unsupported. If President Obama wants a comeback, he first needs luck and in particular the business cycle to work in his favor in the coming months, and after that, he needs skill in managing fellow partisans in Congress.
The economy is so unchallengeably Issue Number One that no sooner after it brought a tidal wave of dissatisfaction against the Republicans in 2008, it is preparing a tsunami for Democrats in 2010. Democrats need job growth to begin in Spring and continue in earnest until November, because voters are not patient when they are in pain and they will thrash about to blame just about anyone in power. For politicians waiting in the wing, their posture will be one of impatience and disaffection. For incumbents in power, this has got to be a year of results (or short-term solutions).
That also means that the President must do more than hope for luck, for he must be seen to be doing something about creating jobs, and, so that it does not appear that he wasted all his political capital for nothing, he must also finish the race on health-care reform and produce something at least minimally worthy of the title “reform.”
But he must tread carefully. His biggest asset is also his biggest liability: Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. That means he cannot blame the first branch of government for his failures (and perhaps that is why he took the unusual step of criticizing the third branch in his State of the Union address). Congress has been a favorite presidential punching bag at least since Andrew Jackson, but the ties of parties has made this tactic difficult to pursue with Barack Obama. Obama’s and the liberal media’s modified strategy thus far, as a result, has been to criticize not Congress as a whole but the Republican membership in Congress for being a “Party of No.” The problem, however, is that the President’s calls for bipartisanship have sounded empty and self-defeating as he has continued to chide congressional Republicans either for the failed policies of the past or their disagreement with his present proposals.
If the President hopes to be liked and supported, and in particular if he wants to get things done and to get some credit for it, he needs to solve the peculiar conundrum and mixed blessing of having one-party rule in DC. He needs to be his own person and act like a leader without alienating his colleagues in Capitol Hill; he needs to maintain congressional support without being tethered to a quid pro quo. Or, he could secretly hope to be relieved of such a dilemma in November 2010.