Life in the Marketplace of Ideas
The Wages of Spin
The stinging rebuke the American electorate delivered in the midterm election has prompted debate among the professional commentariat and apparently also within the administration itself: is the problem with the policies that Obama has delivered or with a failure to promote those policies and their benefits to the American people?
Democrats would prefer to believe the latter. Since their policies are superior, they believe, supporting them is rational. If the American people reject the policies themselves, then either the policies or the American people are irrational. Either the policies fail to benefit the people, or the people cannot see how richly they benefit from them. In either case, the Democrats' political fortunes are bleak. But if the problem is not with the product but with the salesmanship, then the Democrats only need to find the right way to educate and persuade the electorate. Once the American people see the superior rationality of liberal policies, then the future will be bright again for the Left.
Liberal commentators began offering the poor-salesmanship theory as soon as the American public began to sour on the Obama administration, especially when opposition to Obamacare accelerated in the summer of 2009. Obama's failure is "one of salesmanship," said Clive Crook in the Financial Times in July 2009. "Obama's sales pitch still needs work," said the Concord Monitor as it defended the essence of Obamacare.
And the same story has been told ever since. The problem is not limited to health care alone, said John Dickerson in a Slate article entitled "Death of a Salesman." People "aren't buying" Obama's arguments on a slew of issues. Ezra Klein summarizes Obama's first year as one of "legislation" and not "persuasion," "winning achievements" instead of "winning arguments." More recently, Politico informed us that the Obama presidency is full of "substantive achievements" but surprisingly inept at explaining and receiving the credit for them.
All of which provided a convenient narrative for the midterm slaughter. In a 60 Minutes interview after the midterms, Obama was asked whether the problem was that his administration had failed to sell its successes. He was only too eager to agree. It is barely a criticism. Bravely taking responsibility for this failing, he said, "We were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that we stopped paying attention to the fact that leadership isn't just legislation, that it's a matter of persuading people." He told the Los Angeles Times that the grave threats he inherited required him to intervene with such heroic speed that there was no time to explain his actions "in a coherent way." To nobody's surprise, the New York Times agreed in an editorial: while Americans should see that the Obama administration has delivered "genuine progress in very tough times," Obama instead has been "sitting on the sidelines and allowing others to shape the debate."
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.