The way President Obama behaved in the recent flap over the scheduling of his upcoming speech reminded me of the behavior of another desperate president: George H.W. Bush.
In the months leading up to the 1992 election, the economy went south and Bush 41’s approval rating tanked. Financial institutions were collapsing, homeowners were struggling to make their mortgage payments and unemployment was climbing. Sound familiar?
A January 1992 New York Times report reveals more eerie parallels:
* Bush was viewed as aloof and out of touch with the plight of ordinary Americans, so much so that at a campaign stop in New Hampshire he responded with: “Message: I care.”
* That campaign stop was part of an unsuccessful road trip that was supposed to connect Bush with working people.
* To make up for that public relations failure, Bush was to reveal his plan to revive the economy in a speech to the nation.
* But privately, Bush’s advisors admitted there was little the president could do vis–à-vis the economy.
* Bush asked Congress to “put aside politics” and quickly enact his plan, but some of his advisors wanted him to go on the attack against the opposition party.
* One exasperated Bush advisor complained, “How can the President of the United States reconnect to someone who is crying about losing their house?”
Obama is facing the same problem that Bush 41 faced 20 years ago: “the presidential bubble.” Obama is surrounded by advisors and separated from the public.
Twenty years ago, Bush’s staffers were anxiously lifting their eyes to the next big thing that would solve their problems: a trip, a speech, a commercial — in the same way the Obama White House is betting on next week’s speech being the cure for their boss’s falling approval numbers.
Bush won the 1988 election on a wave of good feelings from the Reagan era. But by 1992 those feelings were long gone, Bush was alone on the stage and his longtime advisors were unable to cope.
Likewise, Obama’s bubble is comprised of academics who clearly can’t cope with the challenges the administration is facing.
Around the same time that Bush 41 was struggling, a Southern governor who was a gifted retail politician with an ability to connect with ordinary folks saw the president’s weakness and took it head on. The governor was Bill Clinton, and you know the rest of the story.
The question is whether Obama will face a Republican candidate next year who has a similar gift for connecting with voters.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has a gift for retail politics, is running as a guy who’s definitely not in a bubble. His major opponent in the primaries, former Governor Mitt Romney, is working hard to bond with voters. But to my mind one of Romney’s major problems is that on the hustings he exudes the bubble culture. This is no surprise, as Romney has spent his professional life being protected from the hoi polloi by ranks of receptionists and personal assistants. His familiar confines are those of the front office and the rug row (where the offices have plush carpeting instead of the gray industrial stuff).
Meanwhile Perry (his rental mansion notwithstanding) strongly maintains the manner of a man who’s lived and worked in places with cracked linoleum floors. He doesn’t have to talk about it much; you simply sense it. That’s a powerful political weapon to use against a sitting president who is trapped in a bubble. Just ask Bill Clinton.
Joanne Butler is a senior economics fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute of Delaware. You can email her at email@example.com.