President Obama had better hope he’s a Great Communicator.
Most of the brainstorms that came out of John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign would, meteorologically speaking, barely qualify as drizzles. On one point, however, the McCain brain trust hit the nail squarely on the head: Barack Obama talks a much bigger game than he plays, with results commensurate with what one might expect of a graduate of the Britney Spears School of Statesmanship.
The latest issue on which the president has become a babbling brook is the British Petroleum oil spill, a grave ecological disaster that threatens to leave an unsightly slick all over his administration as well. A CNN/Opinion Dynamic poll found that 59 percent of the American people now disapprove of his handling of the crisis. According to Gallup, Obama’s overall approval rating is at an all-time low, having dipped below 50 percent.
Now the president cannot make the problem disappear by waving a magic wand, even if he can cause his approval ratings to vanish by wagging his lips. And in a sense this is unfair: anyone who has high expectations for what the federal government can accomplish when faced with an intractable problem obviously stopped paying attention long before Obama began gracing us with his orations.
Alas, he who lives by hope and change is always at risk of dying by it as well. Obama’s problem is twofold: Even in the era of the permanent campaign, there is a time to govern. Yet Obama’s adeptness on the stump is not matched with any comparable managerial prowess. But his second, bigger problem is that the things he has actually done do not appear to be deliver the promised results.
Obama is not always all talk and no action, especially when those actions can be undertaken by maxing out the national credit cards. He has blessed us with a nearly $800 billion stimulus package that doesn’t stimulate private-sector job creation and a $1 trillion health care bill that his own regulators say will jeopardize the existing coverage of 51 percent of American workers.
For his next act, we will see the first broad-based tax increases of his administration, including the 2011 expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Unless you are a Census worker, it is a far cry from a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. Taxpayers will be paying for all this new spending long after their children have been punished with children.
Let’s give credit where it’s due: When a less honey-tongued commander-in-chief presided over a debt-addled banking system, high unemployment, abysmal job creation, a mess on the Gulf Coast, rising health care costs, and two foreign wars that don’t seem much closer to being won in any meaningful sense, his approval ratings were far lower than Obama’s 46 percent.
So clearly, good speechmaking skills count must count for something. If only George W. Bush had taken a few Dale Carnegie courses in public speaking. The Republican Party might still have some influence in Washington right now.
In order for things to improve, Obama must hope he can be like a different Republican president — Ronald Reagan. They didn’t call him the Great Communicator for nothing; he also was a gifted speaker. Though Reagan himself doubted this, perhaps it is possible to replicate this feat without communicating great things.
Eighteen months into his presidency, Reagan didn’t look like he was in much better shape than Obama. The 1982 midterm elections went at least as poorly for his party as it appears the 2010 races are going to go for the Democrats. In 1984, Reagan won 49 states, losing the 50th by less than one vote per precinct. Obama can hope his big-priced decisions are vindicated over time. And he can count on the Republicans having their share of Walter Mondale-caliber candidates to run against him in 2012.
But right now, the current occupant of the Oval Office more closely resembles Jimmy Carter borrowing Reagan’s teleprompter. But the Obama enthusiasts are presumably not worried. After all, Reagan was a celebrity when he became president too.
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