Explaining and Inspiring? Good Luck with That

When Barack Obama sat down with Charlie Rose recently, he scrutinized his past four years in office and named his failure to give equal weight to policy and narrative—what he termed "explaining, but also inspiring”—the biggest failure of his first term. His self-criticism sounded a melodious chord with the constant complaints the press corps has leveled against his presidency.

After the 2010 State of the Union, George Packer called Obama’s inaugural year in the White House a “communications failure,” and Drew Westen, who laments Obama’s failures as a communicator with the fervor of a foreteller of Armageddon, reached his most apocalyptic heights when he wrote of Obama’s inauguration speech, “there was no story—and there has been none since.”

Obama has agreed with these complaints before too. In November 2010, Obama went on 60 Minutes and said, “What I didn't effectively, I think, drive home, because we were in such a rush to get this stuff done, is that we were taking these steps not because of some theory that we wanted to expand government.” Put a bit more simply, he thinks he didn’t do enough ‘splaining and inspiring.

Jonathan Chait already thoroughly murdered Westen’s condemnation of Obama’s inability to live up to the mythic examples set by FDR and Jed Bartlett in August 2011, but since this frame of presidential communications refuses to die, here’s a reminder for all the pundits—and the president.

This erosion of the president’s ability to tell a story to the public isn’t a new phenomenon. And most of the time, it’s not the president’s fault. The real culprit? There’s cable and television for starters, which make it easy to avoid a president when he attempts to speak to the nation. Back in the days when television was limited to three channels that all broadcast presidential addresses and the Internet was barely a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye, listening to Richard Nixon was high entertainment. Now, people would much rather watch Game of Thrones or check Facebook. For Obama’s last State of the Union in January, 38 percent of households tuned in. In March 1969, Nixon had 59 percent of the country listening to him. And it was only for a routine press conference.  It’s hard to tell a story when no one’s listening. 

The president’s story also ends up far more fractured these days. Thanks to the Higgs boson that is the Internet exploding the media into millions of tiny pieces, people hear presidential remarks from a mélange of different outlets with wildly diverse frames, agendas, and expertise. And the different fragments of news don’t leave people with a patchwork—but near complete—picture of the president’s words since most people don’t dabble across the web taste-testing different flavors of news coverage. People stick with news presented in a way with which they agree for the most part—liberals reading HuffPo, conservatives reading the Drudge Report, etc. Instead of hearing the president’s story, we appease our pre-existing beliefs by hearing the adapted version of our choice.

The Higgs boson effect of modern news coverage also leaves reporters far less interested in covering policy-driven speeches and presidential attempts to divine narrative from wonkiness.  For an example, let’s look back to the 2012 State of the Union again. Not only did a minority of the country tune in, but news outlets didn’t even bother covering it expansively, even though the speech provides the backbone for the president’s agenda for the entire year. If you remember, there was a far more captivating thing happening in American politics at the time of Obama's marquee speech—the 2012 Republican primary. Rick Santorum had inexplicably been winning primaries with only a pick-up truck and fighting words, and only four days prior Newt Gingrich had bested Mitt Romney in South Carolina. A primary of such epic proportions is basically the journalistic equivalent of The Avengers—it doesn't get more entertaining than watching these political giants be quippy and cause major destruction. In the week of the State of the Union address, the primary gobbled up 33 percent of news coverage, leaving Obama's big speech with only 9 percent.

And don’t even bother comparing Obama the campaigner to Obama the president. It’s an even more unfair comparison than any of the oft-mentioned forbears of presidential eloquence. Of course Obama can say uplifting, magical things on the trail. Oratorical masters can weave persuasive webs from hope and change effortlessly when all their promises remain ethereally in the future tense. Spinning convincing stories on a bed of broken promises and not-quite reached goals, on the other hand, is near impossible. Yet, this is the task that faces presidents. Comparing 2012 campaign-mode Obama to 2008 campaign-mode Obama is also unfair. He’s got a record to run on now, and although he’s lost none of his on-the-trail cool, it’s a bit muted by the brutal economy always in the foreground.

The president isn’t only condemned for his relationship with the people. His communications with the press are also found wanting. Is Obama coy with the press? To be sure. But so was Bush—David Gregory complained about the Bush administration that, “My biggest frustration is that this White House has chosen an approach with the White House press corps, generally speaking, to engage us as little as possible.” Carter, Reagan, and Clinton—who, despite his yarn spinning skills, was lambasted by the press for trying to short-change the White House press operations his first few months in office—were also jeered for hiding from the press corps. Heck, even FDR was a fan of keeping conversations with reporters on deep background, keeping his most choice quotes in the shadows. If you’re going to complain about Obama’s lack of press repartee, acknowledge that this is an institutional pet peeve, not an individual one.

In truth, Obama has been perceived as the best communicator when he has legislative successes and policy coups in his back pocket to brag about—scenarios that aren’t easy to plan for, especially given the fractious and untamable nature of the 112th Congress. Near the end of his presidency, Bill Clinton had approval ratings in the 70s, and it wasn’t a result of his storytelling prowess. If you remember, the story the public was hungry for him to tell—the whole “did he or didn’t he have sexual relations with that woman” one—wasn’t one he was particularly keen on sharing. He had high approval ratings mostly because of the kick-ass economy.

Obama hasn’t had much to celebrate on the economy front—any front really. Even when he has, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the death of Osama bin Laden, and his support of gay marriage for example—it’s unfair to compare him to a Franklin Delano Roosevelt or a Ronald Reagan given how radically the playing field has changed. Fireside chats are a relic of the radio era, and they aren’t ever going to translate to today’s media landscape. And, the communications policies have blurred over the decades, leaving our former leaders looking far more divine than they did when we were living through them. In 1990, a political scientist told The New York Times, "Jimmy Carter is looking good with hindsight. All the things for which he was criticized are now qualities which everyone says we need," words that the world never thought anyone would say about Jimmy Carter.

Sure, Obama’s first term could have suffered less if could have sold his story to the public more effectively. And there are no doubt many things that Obama could do to improve his communications operation. But, is there anything presidents can actually do to return to the salad days of yore? The problem has plagued presidents for decades and doesn’t look like it will be solved anytime soon—especially if Pericles’ protégé Mitt Romney takes the reigns come January. Instead of his storytelling regret, Obama would be far better off wishing for a healthy downgrade of the public and press's expectations that he’s supposed to captivate the whole nation with his words. We judge modern presidents by the same rubric as their forbears, but give out the grades in an entirely new and overwhelming fashion. Unfortunately for the president, this solution is probably out of reach, which means the “president has communications problem” story is going to stay in rotation for the time being.

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