Saturday, October 2, 2010

A matter of salesmanship

We’re about a month out from the gathering of the right-wing furies we’ve been led to believe amounts to a GOP hurricane set to remake the American political landscape. An onslaught of recent polls (equal parts of Nostradamus and Chicken Little) come to conclusions about the Obama White House and the Democratic Congress, forecasts so resoundingly bad you wonder why they took office in the first place.

The Sept. 28 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll starts the last quarter of the year with dire buzz for Team Obama: Asked about their preference for a majority party in Congress, 46 percent of those favored the Republicans, while 43 percent backed the Democrats (margin of error 3.1 points either way). Other polls have been less charitable to the Democrats’ prospects than that.

But the NBC/WSJ poll flips the script on the GOP’s disaster modeling. According to the survey, most of the country still thinks President Obama isn’t to be held accountable for the condition of the U.S. economy. Some 56 percent think Obama inherited the current economic crisis, compared to 32 percent who believe Obama White House policies are responsible for the situation.

That's a steady decline from January (when 65 percent surveyed said Obama inherited the economy), and from February 2009 (when 84 percent said that). But that decline makes perfect sense; it dovetails with the logical idea that the longer you’re in charge of something, the more it becomes your responsibility. Nothing unusual about that.

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What has been unusual is the way the administration has handled the crisis of perception. Obama and the Democrats have accomplished a lot in 20-odd months, but they’ve largely vacated the front lines of the message wars. The characteristic Obama Zen-master sang-froid hasn’t been a match for the intense, sky-is-falling narrative of the Republicans. As the economy of most Americans stagnates or drops even further, the Democrats have been late to raising their voices to something closer to the fever pitch that may be necessary right now, even if it is distasteful.

The first sales job needed is a pitch to the Democratic base, and there’s evidence that President Obama is on the case, combining campaign rhetoric with tough love.

In the new issue of Rolling Stone, Obama goes all counter-intuitive on us, actually chiding the base of supporters it might be a good idea to mollify. “It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election,” he told the magazine.

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Perversely, this straight talk to progressives, direct and downright confrontational, may be just what’s needed. It calls on Democrats and progressives — the same multiculti mosaic that lifted Obama to power in 2008 — to own up to being Democrats and progressives, and to understand what the president constantly discovers: the world of difference between campaigning and governing.

Some in the blogosphere understand. “Obama has been working on progressive issues during his entire Presidency, [for] which he has received no credit […] from the progressives,” said Noelle Schmitz of the Partisan Pages Web site to Devona Walker recently in TheLoop21.

“Unfortunately we haven’t had enough courageous Democrats to support him in those endeavors. Concessions and compromise has only earned him anger from all sides. Obama isn't Putin, he can't force anyone to do anything ... We need Dems with guts and backbone to stand by him and vote with him to move forward with his agenda.”

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Schmitz grasped one of the more meaningful distinctions between this president and his predecessors:

“(Obama) is unique because unlike other Presidents, he will change his mind when something isn't working, change strategy when it’s not working, say he was wrong ... when he is ... He doesn’t ‘stay the course’ if a tactic isn’t working.

"Over time, I believe this will be a plus for him,” Schmitz said. “But it is obvious that he doesn't seem to understand one important point, perception is everything. He can explain his policies and his approach, but it doesn’t mean a thing to uninformed people.

“When there is a crowd of people shouting over him, demeaning him and the changes he has made, his logic gets lost in the noise and lies,” Schmitz said. “He has had more major accomplishments in his first two years than Bush had in eight; but it isn’t enough for progressives and it is too much for the Republicans."

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There’s every sign that President Obama gets it. This week the president traveled to some of the battleground states, places thought to be in play in November, for a series of up-close-and-personal contacts with Democrats. On Tuesday he was at a rally at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, meant to punch up young voters’ morale. On other days the president was guest of honor at backyard chats, talking policy amid the bratwurst.

They’re strong, positive steps that suggest the president finally understands the power of the White House bully pulpit, its intrinsic leverage in swaying public opinion — when they decide to frickin use that leverage.

It’s a matter of salesmanship for Obama and the Democrats now. As Obama navigated the gulf between campaigning and governing, the 67 million people who voted for him have had to navigate the space between elation and skepticism — for some, beyond that, all the way to disappointment.

The threshold of expectations is so high, in no small part because of what the president himself has led us to believe is possible. Until recently the Democrats have built their brand on effectively Not Being the Other Guys, of reminding people how Things Used to Be Worse — not so much telling the nation what they are and what they’ve done as telling the nation how bad the Republicans are.

The Democrats are learning now that accentuating the negative doesn’t work. Rather than trumpeting their own accomplishments, the Dems have been advancing what’s wrong with their opponents, rather than what’s right with them.

John McCain did the same thing in 2008. That’s a cautionary tale if there ever was one.

Image credits: Obama: © 2010 Bryce Richter/The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Poll snapshots: NBC News/The Wall Street Journal.

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