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The Zombie Myth of Presidents "Not Connecting"

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Former Vice President Walter Mondale is the latest public figure to fall victim to the impossible-to-kill myth that the predictable decline in President Obama's political standing is the result of a failure to "connect" rather than structural factors:

Mondale recalled that President Carter, as his standing in the polls slid, "began to lose confidence in his ability to move the public." The President, he said, should have "got out front earlier with the bad news and addressed the people more." He sees a similar problem with Obama: "I think he needs to get rid of those teleprompters, and connect. He's smart as hell. He can do it. Look right into those cameras and tell people he's hurting right along with them." Carter, on the other hand, he said, might not have been able to. "At heart, he was an engineer," Mondale said. "He wanted to sit down and come up with the right answers, and then explain it. He didn't like to do a lot of emotional public speaking."

The Washington Post's Dan Balz frames the issue similarly, suggesting it's some sort of mystery why Obama "has had so much difficulty making a connection with voters on economic issues" in the context of what is arguably the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression:

One of the persistent mysteries about the president is why someone who began his adult life as a community organizer, working with economically displaced workers in Chicago, has had so much difficulty making a connection with voters on economic issues. That was a problem during his presidential campaign. From the questions on Monday, it remains a problem today.

Salon's Steve Kornacki does a fantastic job illustrating why these claims are nonsense in a retrospective on Bill Clinton in 1994 (disclosure: I cross-post on Salon). Just as with Reagan in 1982 (see here and here), an unfavorable political environment overwhelmed Clinton's ability to "connect":

It's tempting -- really, really tempting -- to watch Bill Clinton on television these days and to say, "Gee, the Democrats would be much better off right now if he were in the White House instead of Barack Obama"...

We're hearing a lot of this kind of talk this week, with Clinton back in the news, thanks to his annual global summit in New York...

Clinton, pundits are now telling us, embodies the magic formula that Obama is missing...

This is true, but only to a point. Yes, Clinton was -- and is -- one of the most effective communicators the Democratic Party has ever produced. But his gift for persuasion had sharp and clear limits while he was president, and when he was faced with a political climate like the one Obama now confronts, it was utterly useless.

That was in the 1994 midterm elections, the last time before this year that a Democratic president's party controlled both chambers of Congress. The economy wasn't as feeble, but Clinton had been weakened by a series of public relations blunders and by the success of congressional Republicans in stalling major pieces of his agenda (a stimulus package, healthcare reform, and a crime bill, mainly) and making Clinton seem ineffective. His poll numbers were slightly weaker than Obama's are now and the prospects for his party weren't good.

Nonetheless, Clinton hit the campaign trail with vigor, believing that he could talk and emote his way to a decent November result. And if you look back now and read Clinton's campaign trail words -- or watch him in action -- you'll quickly realize that all of the magical-seeming traits we now celebrate were on full display...

In short, Bill Clinton was Bill Clinton in the 1994 midterms -- and his party still got massacred. The GOP still won 52 House seats and won the chamber for the first time since 1954, and it still won eight Senate seats to control that body for the first time in eight years. And when the dust settled, the political world -- Republicans, Democrats and the media -- was united in one conclusion: Clinton was a goner in 1996. The country had tuned him out. He had lost his ability to "connect."

His experience is well worth keeping in mind now. We like to think that personality, message and campaign tactics are what define elections -- that the good politicians are the ones who put all of this together in a way that trumps structural factors like the economy. But that's just not how it works. Clinton's words -- no matter how masterfully crafted and articulated -- fell on deaf ears in 1994, just as Obama's are mostly falling on deaf ears today. It was only when favorable structural factors were again present that Clinton began "connecting" again. Obama's style may be different than Clinton's, but it already played well with the general public once, and it can again -- if favorable structural factors return.

[Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com and Pollster.com]

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