Of all the pitfalls Barack Obama might face in the presidency, here is one not many people predicted: He is struggling as a public communicator.
The sluggish and unsteady response to the uproar over AIG bonuses highlights a larger problem of his White House: Obama’s surprisingly uneven campaign to educate the public about the economic crisis and convince the public that he is in command of circumstances.
It was brilliant communications skills that carried Obama to the presidency, with a national campaign built on the strength of his personal story and the clarity of his promise to transform politics. On the rare occasions when he was thrown on the defensive, he quickly turned problems into opportunities and regained control of his public image.
What’s different now? The polished phrases and unflappable delivery haven’t gone away. His prime-time news conference and speech to Congress drew the usual praise.
But the discipline and strategic focus of the campaign have yet to move into the White House. The story of the day often catches the president flat-footed or on the defensive — and regularly undercut by fellow Democrats.
To Obama’s dismay, he is learning that successful presidential communications is only in part — often a fairly small part — about personal eloquence. It requires harnessing his words to a consistent strategy of public education. Obama needs lawmakers and voters alike to view the world through his prism, and to accept his analysis of what’s wrong and his priorities about how to make it right.
Here’s why Obama is struggling as president on the same subject on which he used to excel as candidate:
Obama’s message on the economy has been as volatile as the stock market itself. When he needed public support for his stimulus plan, he spoke in stark and gloomy terms.
“The picture is likely to get worse before it gets better,” he said in his weekly address on Jan. 31. “Americans know that our economic recovery will take years — not months.”
That was too dark, in the eyes of many Democrats and the markets.
So once the stimulus passed — and criticism of his bummer message mounted — he shifted to a more optimistic take on the economy, at one point encouraging people to consider hopping back into the market. That was seen as too bright.
This week has seen a mix of both sunshine and clouds, including Vice President Joe Biden’s warning that Obama inherited a worse economy than Franklin D. Roosevelt did, when the country was facing 25 percent employment and the economy stayed weak for a dozen years.
Is it a good time to invest, as Obama opined last month, or a good time to run for the hills? Billionaire investor Warren Buffett told CNBC the government needs to be clearer about whether people should be confident or fearful: “It’s the nature of the political process, somewhat, but we’ve had muddled messages.”
Defending the White House approach, an Obama aide said: “We’ve made sure people know that nothing is a panacea, there are no silver bullets, and it’s going to likely get worse before it gets better, but we have this plan; you should put confidence behind the president, and people do.”
Look no further than this Sunday’s shows for a partial explanation of the confused messaging — and the thin bench of top-notch communicators in this White House.
Larry Summers, speaking about AIG’s big bonuses, provided lifeless academic reasoning for why there was little Obama could do to prevent the payouts.
“We are a country of law. There are contracts. The government cannot just abrogate contracts,” Summers said.
That led late-night host Stephen Colbert to scold: “Well-played, Summers! Use a word nobody knows at a time when no one can afford a dictionary.”
The next dy, Obama was on live television saying he would “pursue every single legal avenue to block these bonuses.
Then there was another economic adviser, Christina Romer, doing her best John McCain impression, saying the fundamentals of the economy are sound. Obama had spent much of the campaign lampooning McCain for saying the same thing — at a time when the fundamentals actually looked similar.
The Sunday shows wanted Timothy Geithner, but the White House is still reluctant to put him too far out in public after his disastrous debut.
By the way, White House officials leaked words they were planning to focus Sunday and all of this week pounding Democrats for refusing to offer sensible budget solutions. Mission not accomplished.
Too cool for his own good
Even when Obama went before the cameras to express outrage at the AIG bonuses, he seemed to nod to the contrived nature of it. During an East Room event, when Obama coughed, he drew laughter by departing from the teleprompter to crack: “Excuse me, I’m choked up with anger here.”
The aide said that the White House is not as focused on “the immediate sound bite about AIG” as it is on “the fact that everything we do demonstrates ... that he’s on the side of the American people [and] that he’s fighting for them.
“They believe it wholeheartedly — poll numbers show that,” the aide said, accurately describing the data. “We’re going to make it clear how angry he is about AIG. But he doesn’t need to devolve into showmanship to make a point. His entire presidency is about being on the side of the American people.”
But James Carville, the Democratic adviser, said the American people “aren’t close to getting their pound of flesh out of Wall Street” and so Obama needs to “give a sense that there’s much more accountability coming than we see.” Carville said Obama has done a pretty good job of communicating as president, although he said his staff could have “more consistency.”
“I think he can be a little more curious about how this all came about,” Carville said. “I think he needs to talk to people about what’s happening, about what’s happening and why he’s doing it. He can be conversational, and he can be inquisitive.”
The aide said Obama has used interviews and prime-time appearances to explain “how solving the bank situation helps small businesses, families, buy a home, buy a new car, get the economy back on track.” But the aide added that Obama is not going to whip out a PowerPoint presentation for a seminarlike explanation of what went wrong. “That’s not how this president communicates,” the aide said.
Hiding the bodies
Before he took office, White House aides told us Obama would spend his first months telling hard truths about the complexity of the economic problems and the complexity of the solutions. There’s been very little of that. No high-profile speeches to explain in detail the banking crisis, AIG or the reasoning for every other bailout.
One reason is that White House officials aren’t anxious to explain the depths of the problems. They tell us they anticipate unemployment to exceed 10 percent next year — and the solution to AIG and the banking crisis to require many more infusions of taxpayer money, perhaps another $750 billion. That’s not a popular message these days.
Obama won’t — and perhaps shouldn’t — speak that frankly. But his silence makes it easier for people to whip up public anger over complex issues such as the AIG bailout and saving the banking system.
“If someone asked the president, he would be honest,” the Obama aide said. “He’s not going to sugarcoat where we are.”
An off-key chorus
It doesn’t help Obama’s message when emocrats keep stepping on it.
Republicans didn’t need to blame Geithner for letting AIG pay bonuses. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) did a fine job of that for them, revealing he wrote a letter two weeks ago alerting Treasury to the problem.
Nor did Republicans need to point out that Obama’s budget plan includes dangerously high deficits. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) did that for them. He did it again this week, telling POLITICO’s David Rogers the budget needs to be changed.
It also doesn’t help when congressional Democrats force Obama off message, as they did by demanding he back off their earmarks. Obama did, and he quietly met their demand and signed a bill loaded with them behind closed doors.
The minute he did, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said Obama made a big mistake.
Now some senior Democrats are starting to choke on his expansive agenda as too much, too soon. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said: “There’s only so much that we can absorb and do at one time.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill got a kick out of Obama’s high-profile plans to mobilize his campaign grass-roots organization — as well as the Democratic National Committee and labor-funded outside groups — on behalf of his budget, when he controls both sides of the Capitol by sizable majorities.
On Wednesday, the Obama campaign e-mailed more than 10 million supporters a link to a video in which Obama asks for help, “block by block and door by door” and adds: “Passing this budget won’t be easy.”
Nor will winning the message war.