By Elvin Lim
President Barack Obama knew that he needed to help his party out as Washington gears up for the November elections. And so, he went on daytime television.
According to Nielsen ratings, Obama had 6.5 million people tuning in to The View last Thursday. In his last Oval Office address on the BP oil spill at primetime on June 16, he enticed only 5.3 million to listen in. As a pure matter of strategy, the decision to go on The View would have been a no-brainer. With a bigger audience in a relaxed atmosphere and soft-ball questions, Obama had little to lose and much to gain by going on daytime TV. In fact, because people are tired of speeches from behind a desk (which is why speeches from the Oval Office garner smaller and smaller audiences the further we are from Inauguration day), people rarely get to see a president taking questions on a couch (which is why The View got .4 million more viewers on July 31, 2010 than on November 5, 2008, the day after Obama was elected).
People say the president’s appearance on The View, the first ever by a president on a daytime TV show, “demeaned” the office. (People said the same thing when Bill Clinton went on the Arsenio Hall Show.) Maybe this is true, and there is something undignified about taking questions while seated on a sofa. But one wonders if there might have been some sexism involved, that what was deemed “demeaning” was that Obama didn’t think it was below his station to be flagrantly courting a minority demographic.
Demeaning or not, like a flower turns towards the sun, Obama is returning to his base in the summer before the mid-term elections. He must, because a large proportion of his base are women. Although 56 percent of women voted for Obama in 2008 (and this was over four times the size of the gender gap between Kerry and Bush in 2004), about a third of these women have since jilted him. Obama was being more than honest when he jested that “I wanted to pick a show that Michelle actually watches.”
Obama is rehabilitating his reputation because his party’s fortunes are inextricably linked to his this November. More than any single factor out there, Barack Obama can enhance the size of the Democratic turn-out in November. And it is worth repeating that almost everything he has done in the last year and a half has guaranteed a sizable Republican turn-out. As Republican candidates have also been successful in nationalizing local races, these voters are disproportionately angry, charged-up, and ready to do some damage to Democratic one-party rule in Washington. Democrats have one piece of good news in this: according to Pew Research, only 52 percent of Republican voters are anticipating their vote as a vote against Obama, compared to 64 percent of Democrats who felt the same in 2006, which suggests that the electoral slap-in-the-face come November might not be as stinging as some pundits have been suggesting.
If there is one thing we know Obama can do, it is to campaign. While that does not make him a good president, he remains a force to reckon with because the road to Capitol Hill runs through the White House. So on The View and on the road the president shall be.
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. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.