President Obama sounds glum.
First he told the audience at the Congressional Black Caucus dinner to "Stop grumblin'. Stop cryin'." Then he gave an interview in which he declared that the country "had gotten a little soft." To top it off, there was his visibly agitated performance at the jobs press conference, in which he used the word 'frustrated' no fewer than 16 times in the course of an hour.
The President is right on schedule. It was at this point in Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton's presidencies -- late in their third year -- that both presidents started singing the blues. For Carter, this came in the form of his "crisis of confidence" address (later known as the "malaise" speech). For Clinton, it was an offhand remark that the country was "in a funk." Decades later, the Carter years still reek of pessimism. Clinton, by contrast, is remembered as a steady optimist and offers an instructive lesson on how and why a President ought to remain so.
Chatting with journalists aboard Air Force One in late September 1995, President Clinton made the mistake of speaking his mind: He suggested that the American people were "lost in the funhouse" and that the country itself was in a bit of a rut. From his perspective, he wasn't far off the mark. Times were tough. The economy was stagnant. Wages had declined for the year even though the GDP had grown. There was talk of a "jobless recovery" that would hollow out the middle class.
The President may have been projecting his private "funk," as well. His poll numbers were near the lowest of his presidency. His health care bill went belly up in '94. And the House Republican majority now menaced the rest of his agenda as well, including a proposed budget over which they threatened to shut down the government.
Whatever the reason for it, the remark on the plane set off a general panic among his political team, who could see "funk" becoming to Clinton what "malaise" had been to Carter. Within days, Clinton issued retractions, saying his "poor choice of words" did not reflect how "very optimistic" he was about the future. In perhaps the ultimate case of a distinction without a difference, he proclaimed: "Malaise is a state of mind. Funk is something you can bounce out of."
Soon every White House press conference and Presidential announcement oozed positivity. In a speech the next month, he declared that the country was "on a roll," "moving in the right direction" and "coming back together" with a "real reawakening" underway. Modest changes in the size and efficiency of government were hailed as a "dramatic reform." Even the budget fight -- arguably the most bruising battle of his first term -- became an occasion for optimism. "The good news is, leaders of both parties want to finish the job," Clinton cooed.
It's tempting to join the cynics and write this off as just another instance of a politician being political. It's also easy to be skeptical and to dismiss the positive spin as useless. Apart from shifting his poll numbers higher, what could Presidential happy talk possibly accomplish?
It turns out, not much. In what will come as no surprise to anyone except the White House communications office, the bulk of the research on Presidential leadership concludes that Presidents simply don't have as much influence over public opinion as they believe they do. The reasons vary -- divided government, shrinking audiences, hyper-partisanship, a complicated media landscape -- but the gist is this: it's a noisy world, and the President is just another shrill voice within it.
There is, however, an important exception to the general rule: Presidents can influence the economy. It's not that the President can talk his way out of a recession. The statistics show that neither slow growth nor unemployment is directly improved by a President's rhetoric. But there can be a powerful indirect effect.
A President's tone can substantially change consumer confidence and the tenor of news the public hears about the economy -- both of which move the needle on growth and employment. After controlling for other variables, researchers found that optimistic remarks from the President result in stronger consumer confidence and improved perceptions of economic news; pessimistic remarks yield the opposite. It's not exactly the stuff of speechwriters' dreams, but it's more than can be said for a President's impact on just about everything else.
Did President Clinton have this in mind when he began his own optimism offensive? Probably not. Presumably he did it because it was good politics, and, as it happened, his poll numbers climbed higher that fall. But the motives are somewhat beside the point. This is one of those precious few areas in public life where the President can do something that pays both rich political dividends and real economic ones.
There may be no more important time for President Obama to learn this lesson. There may also be no more difficult time to put it into practice. Things are ugly: unemployment remains stubbornly high, median incomes comparatively low, the markets ominously shaky. The President cannot easily change these facts, and any attempt to cover them in rhetorical gloss might come off insensitive, or worse. But it's also impossible to ignore them, as the Republican primary candidates have made a rich feast of each new piece of sober news.
The President should consider a shift in his rhetoric anyway. Failing to do so may make matters worse both for him and for the country. And if that happens, then he might find November 2012 a real occasion for gloom.