07/15/2010 09:29 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The bogus presidential "salesman" narrative

Back in January, I predicted that the likely decline in President Obama's political standing due to the state of the economy and an unfavorable political environment would spur the press to generate "elaborate narratives about how the character, personality, and tactics of the principals in the White House inevitably led them to their current predicament."

The latest pundit to engage in this dubious exercise is Slate's John Dickerson, who has written an article attributing the relatively weak support for Obama and his policies to a failure of salesmanship (via Mickey Kaus):

Death of a Salesman

A slew of new polls suggest Obama is not a great pitchman for his policies.

...Economists may say, yes, the economy is recovering... but the country says no... [A] slew of recent polls ... suggest that the administration's summer tour will do little to improve the president's political fortunes and those of his party...

[W]hat's so bad about these surveys is that they paint a very dark picture about the president's ability to brighten the future. If Obama can't improve things for Democrats, no one can. And as bad as the president's numbers are, the Democrats in Congress are in even worse shape.

Candidate Obama used to joke about rays of sunshine coming in when he started to speak. Now he brings the clouds. He's spent a great deal of time talking about the Recovery Act and health care reform, but the political fortunes of those programs are dismal, which suggests his ability to persuade and change minds is seriously damaged.

He has been trying to sell the success of his stimulus legislation for months in speeches, interviews, and events all over the country. In the CBS poll, only 23 percent think it has helped the economy. Only 13 percent think it has helped them personally. Despite all of his efforts, people are either ignoring him or tuning him out--or they can't hear him over the bad economic news. Whatever the reason, the best argument Obama has for how he and Democrats have addressed the issue people care the most about is one that people aren't buying.

The situation on health care is worse... The president has worked hard to improve the political fortunes of health care, but it hasn't worked...

In reality, however, there's no evidence that Obama has become any less effective as a salesman -- as I've repeatedly pointed out over the years (e.g. here, here, here, and here), presidents can rarely generate significant shifts in public opinion in support of their domestic policy agenda. Obama's failure to generate increased support for the stimulus and health care is not the least bit surprising, especially given the political environment in which he's operating.

The larger problem with this analysis is that Dickerson is constructing a post hoc narrative about Obama's poll numbers using the epistemology of journalism, which treats tactics as the dominant causal force in politics. Within that worldview, if Obama's numbers used to be high and they are now low, the only logical conclusion is that "his ability to persuade and change minds is seriously damaged." The idea that Obama's numbers have declined across the board in large part due to the state of the economy is only briefly acknowledged ("or [the public] can't hear [Obama] over the bad economic news").

Update 7/15 11:08 AM: Jay Rosen flags another great example -- a long Harris and VandeHei piece for Politico that puts far too much weight on Obama's alleged political failings relative to the economic and political fundamentals:

The problem 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. And the promises he made in two years of campaigning turn out to be much less appealing as actual policies...

Democrats privately complain that the real power center -- the West Wing staff -- isn't nearly as impressive [as his Cabinet]. A common gripe on the Hill and on the lobbying corridor is that the communications team isn't great at communicating, the speech-writing team isn't great at speech writing (exemplified by Obama's flaccid Oval Office speech last month on the BP spill and energy policy) and the political team often botches the politics...

Obama is swimming up Niagara until joblessness improves. But, even while Obama doesn't directly control the economy, he has not been a disciplined or effective communicator about the state of the economy and his prescriptions for it. People will tolerate a weak economy if they feel there is an upward trajectory. But Obama has not managed to instill that confidence...

The article does contain a few brief acknowledgments that Obama faces a difficult economic situation ("Obama is swimming up Niagara until joblessness improves," "No politician can escape the gravitational pull of bad employment numbers and economic figures in real-time") but as with Dickerson, the implication is that the lack of popularity of his initiatives is largely the result of a failure of salesmanship.

Update 7/15 5:29 PM: CJR's Greg Marx has a similar take on these two pieces.

[Cross-posted at]