Even before he took the oath of office, Barack Obama had little use for humility. Then-Senator Obama rarely sought to dispel the hype around the historic nature of his ascension to the presidency. Before winning the White House, Obama said he hoped to emulate transformative figures like John F. Kennedy and, revealingly, Ronald Reagan. Naturally, Obama’s allies had high expectations for the new, young president. “[L]ike Reagan, Obama will be a transformative president,” wrote Dartmouth University Professor Jeffrey Hart. “And like Reagan, Obama is a Great Communicator, his oratory energizing people for change.” Historians will be left to debate just how transformative Obama was as president, but his talents as a communicator were clearly exaggerated. By the president’s own repeated admissions, his ability to persuade the public has been measured and found wanting.
“Obama was hailed as a new Great Communicator during his yes-we-can 2008 campaign, but he’s often had a real failure to communicate in office,” read a Politico Magazine presidential postmortem published this week. “His tenure has often felt like an endless series of media frenzies over messaging snafus — from the fizzled ‘Recovery Summer’ to ‘you didn’t build that’ to the Benghazi furor, which is mostly a furor about talking points.”
By dismissing the momentous attacks on CIA installations in Benghazi as a foofaraw over “talking points,” it’s clear that the impulse among some in American newsrooms to absolve the president for his failures to communicate has not abated entirely. This species of exculpation ranges from blaming the heedless American public for their failure to be swayed by the great orator’s skills to scolding the president’s Republican opponents for making his job more difficult.
For this, Grunwald can be forgiven. As he noted, Obama himself has cast about in search of villains to blame for his failure to convey to Americans the virtues of his policies. On more than a handful of occasions, however, Obama has criticized himself and his administration for their communications problems.
“What I haven’t always been successful at doing is breaking through the noise and speaking directly to the American people in a way that during the campaign you could do,” President Obama told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in January of 2010, following Scott Brown’s surprising victory in the special U.S. Senate election to replace the late Ted Kennedy. It wasn’t the health care reform law that had become, and remains, an albatross around the necks of Democrats; the left contends that the reforms, or at least their goals, are self-evidently virtuous. The problem is that the president failed to convince the public of that empirical reality.
For Obama’s supporters, the disconnect between their hopes for the president and their lived experiences was jarring. Convinced as they were of Obama’s communicative powers, the president’s allies organized a séance to make contact with the ghosts of ’08. “What’s required is a return of Barack Obama the master communicator, resurrection of the guy who touched so many voters during the 2008 Presidential campaign,” wrote The Huffington Post’s Bob Burnett. “Talk to us, Barack. Bring back the hope.” Ahead of the president’s first State of the Union address, New Yorker’s George Packer contended that Obama’s grasp of granular policy specifics led him to overestimate the American public, and this amounted to a “communications failure” in year one.
Scott Brown’s election was no fluke. It was a sign of things to come. After the Democrats lost the House in 2010, The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedlander diagnosed the president’s condition as an “inability to tell a convincing story.” His choice of the word “convincing” over “compelling” reveals, albeit unwittingly, that what was desired of Obama is less communication and more manipulation. Again, however, Freedlander was merely echoing the president. “We did not always think about making sure we were advertising properly what was going on,” Obama confessed just days before the ill-fated midterm vote.
“The mistake of my first term — couple of years — was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right,” Obama told CBS host Charlie Rose. “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.”
The 2012 elections provided the president with a sense that he had successfully revived his ability to communicate to the American people. In an interview with former New Republic owner Chris Hughes in early 2013, Obama revealed that he had been spending a lot of energy contemplating how he might “communicate more effectively with the American people.” By April, Senate Democrats had failed to advance a new package of gun control measures, and the president’s communication skills were once again in doubt. His decision to resort to executive actions to address the issue of guns and to bypass the legislature, in fact, is the ultimate admission of communicative failure.
Doubts in the president’s communications skills were affirmed over the course of the year as the implementation of the Affordable Care Act revealed that many Americans could not, in fact, keep their primary health care provider if they so desired. “I regret very much that what we intended to do,” Obama told NBC News, “that, you know, we weren’t as clear as we needed to be in terms of the changes that were taking place.” As the implementation process grew worse and worse, and the ACA’s insurance exchange website became a case study in federal inefficiency, Obama felt compelled to apologize for the debacle. “I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me,” he added. Talk about a communications breakdown.
When the president lost the Senate to Republicans in 2014 and saw the GOP secure its largest margins in the House in nearly a century, Obama again censured himself. “One thing that I do need to constantly remind myself and my team are is it’s not enough just to build the better mousetrap. People don’t automatically come beating to your door. We’ve got to sell it,” the president told CBS News the week after his party’s defenestration. “We’ve got to reach out to the other side and where possible persuade.”
Bizarrely, the president seemed frustrated by the fact that communicating effectively in a republican democracy was part of the president’s job description. “I think we have not been successful in going out there and letting people know what it is that we are trying to do and why this is the right direction,” Obama added. “So there is a failure of politics there that we have got to improve on.”
This was not the first time the president bemoaned the rules of the game after a loss. “I think that folks here in Washington like to grade on style,” Obama asserted petulantly in an interview with ABC News in 2013 after his aborted and unsuccessful effort to drum up support for a strike on Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. “And so had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear, they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy.”
With time, however, Obama appeared to accept that communications skills are a critical element of statecraft abroad as well as at home. “Every president has strengths and weaknesses,” Obama told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. “And there is no doubt that there are times where I have not been attentive enough to feelings and emotions and politics in communicating what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
The image of Obama as the left’s Great Communicator was always a fabrication. Given how often Obama himself has admitted his persuasive skills have failed his supporters, you might think this invention of a center-left media would have long ago been buried. Yet, it remains with us even today. Born out of a wish and unresponsive to falsifying evidence, the idea that Obama was somehow a marvelously successful communicator will probably be with us long after the president leaves office.