For almost nine months, Obama has been unable to generate a positive message. Or almost any message, for that matter. Events continue to get between him and the public – and he has the low approval ratings to prove it. This is an ironic turn of events for someone propelled to the presidency as a gifted orator: America no longer seems to be listening.
Beginning with revelations of NSA spying last June, events have continually overtaken the administration. With each new attempt to launch a message, events have eclipsed it: Syria, the federal government shutdown and debt limit debate, Obamacare’s botched rollout and continuing problems, and now the Ukraine crisis.
Obama has not been overmatched by one, but by all of them. His popularity has suffered as a result.
Gallup polls documented Obama’s ratings dropping throughout 2013. Despite starting with his second inauguration — his approval rating was 56 percent in early January — that would prove to be his high point, and they sunk to the low 50s in February.
By March, Obama’s rating was below 50 percent and stayed between the low 50s and the high 40s through most of May. With leaks about NSA spying, Obama fell to 45 percent. Following Obamacare’s rollout, he routinely began hitting the low 40s. He ended last year averaging a 41 percent approval rating in December. By the first half of this month, it was below that.
Kicking off 2014, with crucial midterm elections likely determining his last two years’ course, the White House made a concerted effort to regain the messaging high ground. Income inequality was the script – delivered rhetorically in the State of the Union and numerically in the president’s budget. Again, nothing. It is doubtful if many beyond the beltway can recall what the administration’s preferred storyline is.
It is as though the scenery has upstaged the actor. The man, who once seemed never more than a speech away from righting any failure in his fortunes, no longer seems able to hold his audience. Regardless of the reason – whether the wrong message or an inability to craft it compellingly – the problem remains the same: America isn’t listening.
If the usual political communication failure is to be off-message, the White House seems to be out of one.
The time that the administration has been out-of-message is now longer than the time before November’s midterms – the event on which Obama’s messaging attempts have been focused. This is an ominous indication the White House may not regain its message footing in time.
An unambiguous economic turnaround would be welcome. But the reason it would be so welcome – after a five-plus year wait – is also the very reason it might no longer help. Not only could it be too late prior to November’s elections, but America may well have already formed an opinion of the Obama economy.
It’s to see how Obamacare could do it in the less than eight months before November. Foreign policy is always capable of pulling surprises, but all the recent ones have harmed the president. Finally, there is no prospect of fiscal crisis that could put him into confrontation with Congressional Republicans – not that this particularly helped Obama when it happened last fall.
The possibility of an unknown event favorably reshaping the political landscape for Obama always exists. However, today’s real unknown for Obama is the predicament in which he now finds himself: being ignored. Having the president, and particularly this president, being just another actor is like Hamlet without a Danish prince.
Worst of all for the White House is the growing conclusion that it may not be events that are getting in the way. It may be that Obama can no longer get in front of them. For Obama, it may be that America is not hard of hearing, but simply tired of listening.
J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.