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."

This was a common explanation for George W. Bush's low approval ratings as well. Bush was just so darned committed to the substance of governing, it was said, so devoted to the inglorious nitty-gritty that keeps the country running, and so scornful of the press and the theater of politics, that he failed to show his virtues to the American people. 

Bush, at least, avoided the press like the plague. In Obama's case, the claim is simply ridiculous. We are talking about a President who seemed to be on prime time weekly during the health care debate. A President who goes on Oprah and The View and The Daily Show, on all the major networks and most of the minor ones, selling his policies vigorously. While his press conferences are rare, Mr. Teleprompter has constantly lectured the American people on the virtues of Obamacare, on mortgage bailouts and financial reform and climate change. And when at last the President's lips fall silent, a host of supporters in the media carry on the instruction.

11/15/2010 5:00:00 AM
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    Timothy Dalrymple is the CEO and Chief Creative Officer of Polymath Innovations, a strategic storytelling agency that advances the good with visionary organizations and brands. He leads a unique team of communicators from around North America and across the creative spectrum, serving mission-driven businesses and nonprofits who need a partner to amplify their voice and good works. Once a world-class gymnast whose career ended with a broken neck, Tim channeled his passions for faith and storytelling into his role as VP of Business Development for Patheos, helping to launch and grow the network into the world's largest religion website. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Tim blogs at Philosophical Fragments.