Can Obama reverse the tide and stop the GOP from taking back the House and the Senate? According to veteran Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, “yes, he can.” For Shrum, this is 1948, with the president pitched against “do-nothing” Republicans, fighting on the side of the people against the privileged. He has found his voice and “while Harry Truman used to “give ‘em hell. This week, Barack Obama gave ’em heck.”
All rousing stuff and no doubt music to the ears of the Democratic faithful, but there are three points to bear in my mind before buying into Shrum’s forecast. First, Shrum is the political consultant to lost causes. He holds the record on the national elections scene for failure and has yet to claim success when it comes to presidential races — all eight (yes eight) of the Democratic White House candidates he advised over the years were defeated either in the primaries or in the general election. In fact, back in 2000 and 2004 I took wagers against Al Gore and John Kerry in the early stages of their campaigns the moment it was announced that Shrum was becoming a key campaign adviser.
The second problem with Shrum’s forecast is his citing of Harry Truman’s famous 1948 upset victory. It is, of course, the most hackneyed analogy for those facing defeat to bring up. Things are dark, boys, but Harry came through and so can we — the polls and newspapers can all be wrong because the final poll is the one that counts, boys, and we are for the people. Drum roll in the background.
And, of course, there have been wins seized from the jaws of defeat. But I doubt this is going to be one of those occasions for no other reason than Harry was able to run against a “do-nothing Congress” as the opposing party controlled Capitol Hill! This time around it is the President’s party reigning supreme at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and if Americans are feeling things are going awry, as all the polls are showing consistently, then it is the ruling party that is going to get it in the neck come November. Blaming the opposition party for being unconstructive is not going to work — Bill Clinton tried that in 1994 and it fell flat.
The third problem with Bob’s rosy forecast for the Democrats can be summed up in four words — “It’s the economy stupid.” Yes, I know that’s a hackneyed citation, too, but James Carville & Co. got it right when they hammered on the economy during the 1992 Clinton election campaign and were rewarded handsomely for doing so. Incumbents and their parties tend to not do well when the economy is in the gutter. Just ask George Bush, John McCain and Gordon Brown. And they do especially badly when they fail at every turn to focus on it, talk about it, give people hope and cheer them up.
The greatest surprise about President Obama is how bad he is at communicating. The President has not used his campaign eloquence since he arrived in the White House. As a friend of mine remarked the other day, “It is almost as if he is holding his breath and waiting for it all to be over.”
Maybe we overestimated Obama when we heard him out on the campaign trail, mistaking rhetorical flash and dash for overall communication understanding and ability. Maybe we were overcome by the contrast between an eloquent Obama and a stumbling Bush — here was a man who could speak in grammatical, flowing sentences. Now Obama seems flat, professorial, ponderous and very unsure of himself.
And maybe Obama is losing confidence in his ability to speak to the nation as a whole and is resorting to what most politicians do when under pressure — namely, speak just to their base, hence the narrow feel of his rhetoric now, the exclusivity as opposed to the inclusivity that he demonstrated during the campaign.
It isn’t just the President’s own performances that are off the mark. The communication strategy of the White House has been flawed from the start. Why not more about the economy from the moment Obama set foot in the White House, after all the polls consistently highlighted the economy as Americans’ number one concern? Neither of his two Oval Office addresses were on the economy. Obama is beginning to talk about the economy now, but where were the FDR-style “fireside chats” when Americans — and Democrats — needed them?
Jamie Dettmer is a former political writer for The Times and The Sunday Telegraph. He blogs at www.jamiedettmer.com.