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 the problems Obama is currently facing. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.
It is going to be difficult for the President to give us an uplifting State of the Union message next week, because it is in effect going to have to be a confession of the state of the Obama presidency.
Between the attempted bombing on Christmas Day which has become something like Obama’s Katrina, Martha Coakley’s humiliating defeat in MA (and the symbolic extinguishment of the Kennedy torch), and the inauguration of a new era of presidential-press relations in which even the liberal media has turned against their hero, Obama has a very difficult task to perform on Wednesday night. A successful speech requires an accurate diagnosis of what has gone wrong for this presidency. So let’s examine the attempted bombing, Coakley, and the media in turn for the lessons they offer to the President.
The Christmas bombing and Coakley’s defeat in MA are related. (Her poll numbers dropped precipitously after Christmas.) The attempted Christmas bombing reinforced the perception that not only was the administration not focusing on job creation, now there was evidence that it had taken its eye off the ball on homeland security. The President must give us reason again to believe that he has his priorities right, and he has his eye on the target – jobs. To some extent he’s already smartened up. Knowing that the President cannot turn around the jobless numbers any time soon, his advisers have told him to get out to show people that he feels our pain. And that’s why Obama has tuned back in, and on recent days has been on the road to vindicate populist rage at Wall Street. He should be mindful though that he is the President, not a traveling salesman.
Why didn’t Obama’s last minute campaigning for Coakley make a positive difference? Well, his comment about Scott Brown and his truck didn’t help, a mistake he should have learnt after his remarks last year in San Francisco about bitter people clinging on to their guns. There is nothing like liberal condescension that turns off Republicans and Independents, and the President needs to show humility and contrition in his speech on Wednesday.
There is an endemic sense in the media that Massachussetts. Yet to give to one state the power to speak for the nation is patently at odds with our constitution, though it would seem that our pundits prefer to give weight to statistical sampling over constitutional propriety. Even liberal journalists are turning against him now, because no one will stand forever for the losing team, liberal bias or not. Obama has to stay focused on the big picture, remembering that while Massachusetts spoke, the nation did not. His job on Wednesday is not to be lost in non-generalizable minutiae, but to inform us of the State of the Union.
So here’s the good news. For all the spate of unfortunate events the Obama administration had to endure since Christmas, it is still a golden rule of politics that no president polls well when the economy is in the doldrums, so it may have been this bad even if he had done everything right. As for the embarrassment in Massachusetts, it is worth remembering that 60 was never really 60 anyway, because Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson were never really reliable. There is no need to over-react to the events in MA. A president must understand the Constitution, which asks him to speak to the Union and to the future, not just to the specific and the present.
The President has been chastened, but not defeated. Expectations for his second year in office are down from stratospheric heights for his first year, and therein lies the seeds for his political recovery. As no one ever overestimated George W. Bush, the president will soon learn that it is better to surprise than it is to disappoint.