08.25.10

Obama's Damaging Doublespeak

Conflicting messages on the “ground zero mosque” are just the latest signal that a clear presidential strategy is missing—and voters are gearing up to retaliate against the president’s incompetence, says Douglas E. Schoen.

Not only has President Obama systematically put forward unpopular policies and programs that are not producing real, long-lasting results that reflect the wishes of the American people, he has not generated a sense of competence in the electorate.

Indeed, Obama’s judgment and instincts have been called into question by a series of bad decisions since he has become president. Put simply, rather than emphasizing results and outcomes, he has opted for rhetorical parsing and political gamesmanship every time. Voters have grown disillusioned with the administration’s reactive and seemingly hypocritical governing style, in which the notion of unity of command and a cohesive strategy have proved alien.

Obama’s flip-flopping on the “ground zero mosque” issue was no different from his handling of the Gulf oil spill, when he sought both to blame BP and assert federal responsibility.

“The problem,” wrote Politico’s John Harris and Jim VandeHei this summer, “is that he and his West Wing turn out to be not especially good at politics or communications—in other words, largely ineffective at the very things on which their campaign reputation was built.”

Whenever the American people are looking for leadership from the president, Obama and his administration have systematically put forth conflicting and ambiguous messages. As Maureen Dowd recently noted in a recent column for The New York Times: “He’s with the banks, he’s against the banks. He’s leaving Afghanistan, he’s staying in Afghanistan. He strains at being a populist, but his head is in the clouds.”

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Obama’s flip-flopping on the “ground zero mosque” issue was no different from his handling of the Gulf oil spill, when he sought both to blame BP and assert federal responsibility, all the while seeking to distance his presidency from the crisis. There, as with the administration’s publicized internal debate over Afghanistan, no clear policy has been articulated. The president supported a surge in troops while simultaneously pledging to withdraw by 2011. In internal documents published in September 2009, General Stanley McChrystal, then the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, warned of “ mission failure” if U.S. forces did not increase their presence significantly in the country, while U.S Ambassador Karl Eikenberry warned that McChrystal’s request for new troops might be counterproductive. Meanwhile, Gen. David Petraeus has said that notwithstanding the set transition date of July 2011, we are “ in this to win” and “it takes the accumulation of a lot of progress ultimately, needless to say, to win overall, and that’s going to be a long-term proposition, without question… I think that we will have an enduring commitment here in some fashion.”

By sending such distinctive and frequently incoherent messages, the administration appears adrift and divided. All the while, the public has no clear idea of the administration’s specific goals and intentions, our level of commitment, and the approach we will take on Afghanistan and on other issues.

These dual messages also ultimately reduce and minimize our country’s standing in the international community, delegitimizes our power, and reduces our influence in the eyes of our adversaries.

Looking at the president’s performance in recently published polling, there is a clear sense that voters’ doubts about whether Obama can solve our country’s problems are increasing.

Poll evidence shows that “the candidate who said he would ‘fundamentally change the way Washington works’ has seen public distrust of government grow to pre-French Revolutionary levels,” Michael Gerson noted this week in The Washington Post.

A Gallup poll last week found that more Americans disapprove than approve of Obama’s recent comments on the “ground zero mosque,” and twice as many strongly disapprove than strongly approve.

A July Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that disapproval of Obama’s handling of the Gulf oil spill continued to rise in the months following the spill, with disapproval outpacing approval by nearly 3 to 1 in the most affected counties on the Gulf Coast. And an early August USA Today/Gallup survey found that support for Obama’s management of the war in Afghanistan has fallen to 36 percent, down from 48 percent in a February poll.

If Obama isn’t able to project competence, his hopes of winning reelection, as well as the success for the Democratic Party in this fall’s midterm elections, will continue to deteriorate.

A July Washington Post poll looked at public confidence in the president to make the right decisions in the 60 congressional districts the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted. In these districts, confidence in the president had dropped to 36 percent. Republicans in Congress did not fare better; 27 percent in these districts said they have confidence in them. But more people said they lack any confidence at all in Obama, 32 percent, than said so of the Republicans in Congress, 23 percent.

Put another way, while confidence in the president is indeed sinking and sinking rapidly, there is no outpouring of enthusiasm for the Republicans—an indication that the situation is salvageable.

That being said, the president’s increasingly marginal role has become an increasingly vexatious problem for Democrats. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, found that Obama’s endorsement hurt Democratic candidates in Illinois, the state he represented in the U.S. Senate and which launched his political career. Forty percent of voters in the state said they would be less likely to support an Obama-endorsed candidate; 26 said the endorsement would be an asset.

With recent polls showing a real possibility the Democrats will lose not only the House but also the Senate in November’s midterm elections, the sole way the party can avoid an electoral bloodbath is for the president to project competence as part of an overarching, reinvigorated, and refurbished campaign strategy.

The only way to do this is to campaign in a fundamentally different manner than they have to date—and abandon their current strategy, whose entire focus is blaming Bush. The failure of the Bush presidency may be part of the message, to be sure, but it is not enough.

Obama needs to persuade voters that he did stabilize the economy, the banks, the financial system, and the auto industry—and that he has turned around month after month of massive job losses. Moreover, he must compellingly make the case that there has been a consistent strategy, plan, and consistent policy.

Also he must emphasize that he has clear policy prescriptions going forward to balance the budget, reduce spending, and reduce the national debt, while protecting key social programs, as President Clinton was able to do in the mid-to-late '90s.

Absent that, the Democrats are facing an electoral defeat of potentially unprecedented magnitude.

Douglas Schoen is a political strategist and author of the upcoming book Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System to be published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins on September 14.