Obama's Lackluster Storytime
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama sat down with CBS News’ Charlie Rose for an exclusive interview that will air on CBS Sunday Morning. In the interview, Obama was pressed by Rose to describe what he thinks has been the biggest mistake of his presidency. The president replied that he thought he got the policies correct, but his salesmanship was lacking. Specifically, Obama said:
When I think about what we’ve done well and what we haven’t done well. The mistake of my first term—couple of years—was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times (Via Mediaite).
Zach Beauchamp suggested a post on this, implying facetiously that Obama’s comments vindicate Drew Westen’s argument. Of course—given my previous posts—I think Obama’s comments better reflect how easy it is for presidents to buy into the myth of their own rhetorical power. Maybe Obama should learn from The Great Communicator:
Time and again, I would speak on television, to a joint session of Congress, or to other audiences about the problems in Central America, and I would hope that the outcome would be an outpouring of support from Americans…
But the polls usually found that large numbers of Americans cared little or not at all about what happened in Central America…and, among those who did care, too few cared…to apply the kind of pressure I needed on Congress.
On this subject, I recommend Matthew Dickinson’s take on Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas. He writes:
The second revealing vignette occurs during the Gulf oil spill, which dragged on for months while the Obama administration waited with everyone else for BP engineers to plug the leak. Under pressure to show that he was doing something, Obama finally relented and gave a prime-time address from the Oval Office to describe the steps that were being taken to plug the leak. The setting of the speech was intended to demonstrate that Obama took the spill seriously, but as his aides conceded, the speech was “a wasted bullet”; “Oval Office addresses were supposed to make presidents look powerful, but the truth about the spill was that there was ultimately a limited amount Obama can do.”
What Kantor’s intimate glimpse shows, once again, is that our expectations for what presidents can hope to accomplish far outstrips the capacity of the office to deliver.
And the capacity for “salesmanship” is particularly limited.
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