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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Obama's Failure To Feel Voters' Pain Could Backfire In Nov. 2010

Obama, Empathy And The Midterms

MY homework for an hour long interview with President Obama last week began with reviews of his earlier speeches and interviews, and conversations with economists and political operatives. It ended around a dinner table.

That’s where, over salad and swordfish, former aides to another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, explored principal questions hanging over the coming midterm elections.

How can Mr. Obama do better at defending his record and his party’s candidates from the wrath of an unhappy electorate? Why doesn’t he receive more credit for winning passage of expanded health care coverage, new financial regulations and an economic stimulus package that many independent economists say helped end the Great Recession? Why can’t he get his message out?

Republicans argue that it’s because Mr. Obama has expanded the size of government and swelled federal deficits, with little to show for it, in the face of public resistance. But Democrats, who share the president’s philosophy, look for other explanations.

The former Clinton aides, like many pundits, turned to Mr. Obama’s cool, cerebral public style. Emotional connection was an aspect of leadership at which Mr. Clinton, for better or worse, excelled. If only Mr. Obama could more effectively demonstrate empathy, they argued, he might be able to convince the supporters he thrilled in 2008 that he’s still on their side.

That observation has gained wide acceptance in Washington. Mr. Obama may have played like a rock star in the campaign arenas of 2008, according to this view, but he displays a Spock-like emotional aridity in more intimate settings. In reality, however, a look back at previous midterm elections, especially during economic weakness, suggests that dollars and cents matter far more than hugs or lip-biting.

It’s not that the Obama administration isn’t striving to touch economically squeezed voters in more direct and personal ways. Mr. Obama risked criticism for breaching presidential decorum by appearing on “The View.” He has begun holding backyard meetings with suburban families.

Last week’s hourlong “town hall” on CNBC, which I moderated, was part of that effort.

But Mr. Obama declined to offer any Oprah-style emotional revelation when I asked whether his unusual background — as a biracial child who spent part of his youth overseas, then attended Ivy League schools — made it harder to connect with average Americans.

“When the unemployment rate is so high and people are having a tough time, it doesn’t matter if I was green, it doesn’t matter if I was purple,” he said matter-of-factly. “I think people would still be frustrated.”

Perhaps that was a moment missed, but history offers scant evidence to think so.

Despite President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s celebrated World War II record, voters didn’t “like Ike” enough to keep his fellow Republicans from losing 48 House seats amid the 1958 recession. For all his talents, Mr. Clinton watched his party lose control of both the House and Senate in the 1994 midterm election, in which economic weakness was one of many factors. “We have a controlled experiment,” observed Stan Greenberg, one of Mr. Clinton’s pollsters, downplaying the significance of Mr. Obama’s empathic skills. “Clearly Bill Clinton had the ability to connect emotionally. He got slaughtered in 1994.”

Moreover, the unemployment rate Mr. Clinton faced then never got higher than 6.6 percent — nowhere near the 9.6 percent rate Mr. Obama faces today. Late last year, notwithstanding his stimulus program, unemployment hit 10 percent for the first time since the 1982 recession, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

After studying their predecessors in similar circumstances, aides to Mr. Obama have come to see Mr. Reagan’s challenging midterm campaign that year as something of a model. “This one feels more like 1982 than 1994,” said Daniel Pfeiffer, the White House communications director.

Mr. Reagan, like Mr. Obama, had assumed immense economic challenges after succeeding a deeply unpopular president of the other party. After persuading Congress to cut tax rates and spending, Mr. Reagan beseeched voters to “stay the course,” and warned against a return to the policies of Jimmy Carter and tax-and-spend Congressional Democrats. He held Republican losses to 26 House seats — a level that, if repeated this year, would allow Democrats to retain control of the chamber.

It’s easy to forget how politically weak Mr. Reagan appeared for much of that year. According to Gallup, Mr. Obama’s current mid-40s approval ratings are comparable to or slightly higher than Mr. Reagan’s at a similar point in 1982 (as well as Mr. Clinton’s in 1994).

Mr. Obama aims to use President George W. Bush’s record in the same way Mr. Reagan used Mr. Carter’s. It was Mr. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress, he tells campaign audiences, who drove the economy “into a ditch.”

The velocity of contemporary media, not to mention its ferocity, may render that argument more difficult to make. In the ever-advancing news cycle, on cable television and the Internet, news tends to get old faster.

Thus, Mr. Pfeiffer asserted, in 1982 “Carter’s presidency seemed more recent than Bush’s presidency” does to voters this year. To compensate, he added, Mr. Obama and his aides began t contrast themselves with Republicans long before the traditional Labor Day campaign kickoff. In any event, the raucous and frenetic quality of the Information Age almost certainly hinders Mr. Obama more than his demeanor.

The town hall ended up carrying an emotional wallop anyway. But it didn’t come from my questions or Mr. Obama’s answers. Instead, it came from an audience member, Velma Hart, a black Obama supporter who works at a service organization for military veterans.

“I’m exhausted — exhausted of defending you, defending your administration,” Ms. Hart said, looking straight at the president. “I’ve been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people and I’m waiting, sir.”

Her riveting statement struck some observers as an embarrassing public relations setback for Mr. Obama. Jon Stewart, on Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” called Ms. Hart an “Obama-sapping machine.”

White House aides hope that the exchange will have a different effect: to demonstrate that Mr. Obama isn’t isolated inside the presidential “bubble,” deaf to the suffering a weak economy has engendered. As it happens, that view of the hour’s emotional impact was endorsed by the master of the genre.

“I may be one of the few people that think it’s not bad that that lady said she was getting tired of defending him,” Mr. Clinton told Politico. “He needs to hear it.”

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Sources: CNBC, NY Times, Google Maps

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