This day was certain to come; what’s a bit surprising is how quickly it came. The Obama administration now has a “communication problem.” According to the Hill newspaper:
The other misstep that has bogged down the administration on health care specifically is Obama’s inability to communicate effectively to the American people, [Professor Paul] Light said. While it is shocking to consider that Obama is anything less than one of the best communicators in modern political history, when it comes to health care, he simply has not been able to make the sell to people who do have health insurance. And Wednesday night’s primetime press conference was a “disaster,” Light said. Light said that for the president to regain political momentum, he needs to reclaim his agenda from Congress and start connecting with the public. “He needs to take this over and own it,” Light said.
Light’s comments highlight something I have noticed over the years: analysts are invariably quick to conclude that the reason a particular policy is unpopular is the president’s failure at “selling” his plan — whatever his plan is — to the people. If only the president gave this speech or framed the argument that way, everything would be different. Then he would once again “start reconnecting” with the public.
From the perspective of a speechwriter for both a president and a Cabinet member, and as someone with an abiding love of words and their ability to inspire people, I need to say this: many of the problems facing political leaders are not “communication” problems that can be fixed by this or that speech; they are facts-on-the-ground problems, which are largely (though not entirely) immune to the influence of words.
Barack Obama is experiencing resistance on health care. The problem isn’t that Obama has suddenly lost his communication or speechifying skills; it is that he and his party are advocating legislation that with every passing day and every new Congressional Budget Office assessment looks worse and worse. Time and analysis, debate and scrutiny, facts and reality: these are the real enemies of Obama’s agenda.
On the campaign trail, words can gloss over a multitude of weaknesses. Governing is different, and harder. Even someone of Obama’s talent cannot make rainy days appear like sunny days. He cannot make the sun rise from the west. He cannot turn a slander against a police officer into a “teachable moment” for America. And he cannot turn higher health-care costs into lower health-care costs, no matter how often he insists he can. Watching the White House trot Obama out for interview after interview, for town-hall meeting after town-hall meeting, in order to “sell” his health-care plan, and to watch it become increasingly unpopular all the while, is to be reminded of the limitations of words in American politics, especially false and misleading words.