David M. Shribman
The other afternoon, President Obama gave what the White House described as a major speech. When political aides describe their boss’ forthcoming perorations as major, they almost always are speaking in hope rather than in reality.
By employing the five-letter intensifier, they are saying to press and public: Please pay attention to this one.
This one, in truth, deserved attention. The President is seeking to change the conversation, away from what he called “short-term thinking” and “the same old stale debates.” Six times he invoked the word “bargain,” suggesting that his new bargain was a riff off the New Deal.
White House aides did more than portray the President’s speech as major. They said it was the opening of a symphony in six movements — my metaphor, not theirs. They might have done well to describe it in that manner rather than the way they did, which was to say it was part of a campaign-style effort by the President.
That may have been a major (that word again) tactical mistake. Voters are turned off by a President on a campaign, particularly when he has just won re-election and especially when he’s in his second term and shouldn’t be running for anything.
But that wasn’t the only misstep. The White House also made it clear that there wouldn’t be much new in these speeches, no new political initiatives, or no new economic proposals. That is not exactly the way to build anticipation, or an audience.
The nation in its midsummer reverie was not shaken by its sunburned shoulders to come in from a softball game to listen to the President say not much new for the first of six occasions of not saying anything different.
This political initiative, disparaged and dismissed bitterly by Mr. Obama’s Republican rivals, comes at a difficult passage for the President. He cried wolf over the sequester.
He blamed Republicans for setting off a new crisis, when most of the country has carried on pretty well during the sequester. That is, though, in part because so few people pay attention to the troubles of those who are terrorized by the wolves, particularly if they are poor and virtually voiceless. The sequester grew out of a scheme conceived in the White House as a threat so odious that no one could possibly embrace it.
President Obama, whose policies and priorities are undermined systematically in obscure corners of Capitol Hill, is registering poll ratings that aren’t exactly robust. The latest Marist Institute survey puts Mr. Obama’s approval rating at its lowest in nearly two years — 41 percent, a drop of nine points since April. Only 37 percent of those surveyed said they approved of the President’s economic performance.
The public is increasingly pessimistic about Mr. Obama’s prospects for the remainder of his term. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed more than a third of Americans expressing that pessimism, exactly double the rate of the public that expressed optimism. That’s a chilling sign for the White House.
But President Obama possesses an advantage his predecessors lacked — a public that has even less patience for Congress than for him. The legislative branch’s disapproval rate, according to the same poll, is an astonishing 83 percent, as opposed to only 12 percent who express approval of congressional performance.
So this summer is developing into a terrible season, as bad in its way as winter was. A struggling President has begun a campaign-style offensive with no campaign in sight against a discredited Congress that is still 15 months away from its own midterm elections.
The word from the public is clear: Heal thyselves. We’re not going to help.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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