Commentary Magazine


Self-Promotion Isn’t Leadership

Fred Barnes observes:

Let’s stipulate that President Obama is a wonderful speaker, vigorous in promoting his policies and even eloquent at times. But there’s a problem: He’s not persuasive. Obama is effective at marketing himself. His 64 percent job approval (Gallup poll) is a reflection of this. But in building public support for his policies, Obama has been largely unsuccessful.

As Barnes and others have noted, there is a significant gap between Obama’s personal popularity and the popularity of his policies. On Guantanamo, spending, bailouts and even his Supreme Court nominee the public doesn’t “take Obama’s word for it.” They are making independent judgments and don’t like a significant portion of the agenda. Or they like it a lot less than they like him ( and largely along party lines).

It is also worthy noting that Obama hasn’t been any more successful in Congress. Really, how hard is it for the president to first defer draftsmanship to his Democratic colleagues and then sign it? He hasn’t persuaded Republicans of much of anything. And Democrats simply were allowed to do what they wanted on the stimulus and budget. There really wasn’t a “sale.” Indeed he ran from fights, on the 9000-earmark omnibus spending plan for example. And aside from a dog-and-pony show and a speech or two he’s done nothing on entitlement reform.

So what’s the “problem”? Well, for starters the country hasn’t really moved to the left. The split of  voters on ideology ( i.e. conservatives/moderates/liberals) on election day didn’t register much of a shift. And while the Republican Party is in a rough patch there’s plenty of evidence on everything from abortion to guns to spending that we remain a center-right country. And Obama is not — center-right, that is. So whatever Obama is selling — voters aren’t really inclined to buy.

But I think there is something more here. Obama doesn’t make much of an effort to engage on the merits. The Republicans, he kept saying during the stimulus debate, had “no ideas.” ( They did but he rejected them out of hand.) He is famous for the strawman argument but not so much for marshaling the facts and making a tightly argued case for his position. The Guantanamo debate was a case in point. He declared — without proof — that Guantanamo had served as a recruiting tool. Contrast that to Dick Cheney’s detailed argument based on a litany of facts on Guantanamo and our interrogation policies. Obama might reassure those who already agreed with him, but absent factual data he was unlikely — and didn’t — sway those not already convinced of his position.

In short, if you are selling what voters aren’t predisposed to accept, and you don’t give them well-argued reasons to change their minds, they likely will remain wary of your policies. Up until now, with large Democratic majorities and a fawning media, that hasn’t been a problem. But does Obama have the ability or even the interest to persuade Congress and the country on healthcare and cap-and-trade ( two bitterly contested issues with no pre-made consensus) or on the remainder of his agenda? It isn’t clear that he does.

And should Obama’s Congressional majorities shrink in 2010 — as they are wont to do in the first mid-term election — what then? Unless the president shifts on policy or learns to make the case and not just a speech, his agenda faces tough sledding.

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