Every national political journalist knows that President Obama seldom performs as the great speaker he is known for being. The electric charisma that was on display in his Democratic convention speeches is often absent. If you saw him slog through policy speeches when he was a senator on the think tank appearance circuit, you know that he is equally capable of being a bit dry. Although Obama never comes across as the unlikeable schoolmarm or haughty Brahmin of Al Gore's and John Kerry's respective caricatures, Obama also lacks a knack for retail politics. He has neither Bill Clinton's folksiness nor George W. Bush's impish jocularity. At his worst, Obama is a mediocre politician.
It was the mediocre Obama who showed up to his town hall at George Washington University Tuesday evening. In front of an auditorium of young supporters, with a live online audience, Obama fielded questions -- from attendees, over Skype and the Internet -- that ranged from friendly ("what has been your biggest surprise in office?") to sycophantic ("How do we remind people that 'Yes We Can,' did not mean 'Yes We Can in 21 months?")
Look across the aisle at the passion in evidence from Tea Party rallies to Nevada Republican Senate nominee Sharron Angle's shocking $14 million dollars raised in the last three months; you would think Obama would want to conjure some of that for his team. Various polls project low enthusiasm among Democratic voters to be their biggest liability this year. Obama is clearly hosting this series of town halls to correct that. And he emphasized that point over and over, urging his viewers to come out and vote and get their friends to also.
But saying you want to create enthusiasm and doing it is not the same thing. Obama was sedate to a fault, managing to generate only two, fairly subdued, bursts of applause in the hour, by my count. He went on much longer for each question than he needed to, especially in those cases where the questioner had basically made his point for him.
In response to a question about how to persuade people to vote Democratic this Fall Obama said that the election must be posed a choice rather than a referendum on Democrats. "We tried the other side’s way.... When this election is posed as a choice a light bulb goes on [in an undecided voter's mind]: ‘Oh yeah I remember, [Republican policies] didn’t work.’" Whereas, he admitted, voters who see high unemployment figures may simply want to "vote the bums out."
This insight has been apparent for months in the polls showing congressional Republicans to be even more unpopular than congressional Democrats even as Republicans outperformed Democrats in voter preference polls and the gathering Republican whirlwind has become apparent. Months ago, congressional Democrats were reportedly urging the White House to draw sharper distinctions with Republicans.
So, Obama appears to have gotten the message, but he has not necessarily assimilated it into his approach.
When Obama noted that the private sector has added jobs in recent months he neglected to draw a contrast with Republicans, who blame Democrats for net job losses that are actually caused by government layoffs. Government layoffs, of course, is something Republicans are supposed to favor. And, indeed, these recent layoffs of local government employees -- mainly teachers -- is partly the result of Republicans’ refusal to spend more on stimulus during this Congress. Making that argument would be a way to use private sector job growth to draw a contrast. Using the small number of jobs added merely to prove that “We’re only halfway there, but it’s starting to work,” is a way to remind voters that private sector job growth remains underwhelming and they are in no mood to reward Democrats for that.
When trying to illustrate his maxim that “We need to make sure this is a choice,” Obama offered a few examples of what Democrats stand for. His first example: middle-class tax cuts. But Republicans also support middle-class tax cuts. If there's one thing middle-class voters should rest assured they will get in any possible election outcome it's an extension of their share of the Bush tax cuts. If Obama wanted to make the case that Republicans are holding middle-class tax cuts hostage to also pass fiscally irresponsible tax cuts for the wealthy, that would draw a sharp contrast. But he did no such thing. Obama’s second example was research and design tax incentives for companies that create jobs at home instead of shipping them overseas. Again, the distinction from Republicans is made only by vague implication, and this issue hardly seems like a way to stir popular passions.
Indeed, Obama seemed determined to tamp down popular passions. He meekly suggested – with all the populist fervor of Ben Stein delivering a college economics lecture – that the Wall Street shenanigans that brought about such widespread hardship are “not an effective way to organize the economy.” Obama’s call to arms? “We need more effective regulations.”
At one point he issued a meandering paean to American “adaptability,” implying that our ability to outcompete Japan or China is the modern-day equivalent of emancipation or women’s suffrage. Perhaps Obama has over-learned the lesson that all voters care about these days is the economy. Public dissatisfaction with Republicans’ rush to invade -- and subsequent mismanagement of -- Iraq was a major reason for Democratic success in 2006 and 2008. Reminding voters that he is keeping his promise to draw down our troops there might be a useful contrast with what a McCain administration might have done.
But telling your supporters to “let your friends know,” that the economy is very slowly improving through tepid policies like tax credits is not going to draw the kinds of contrasts with prospective Republican governance that Obama himself says Democrats must.
If Democrats are looking for a silver bullet to inspire their base and save their congressional majorities, they won’t find it in the message Obama delivered on Tuesday night.