Obama’s economic message

Today, even the teleprompter didn’t help.

As the US markets opened Monday and began responding to Friday night’s downgrade of our credit rating, everyone waited for the president’s response. After some delays, it finally came in the afternoon.

But amplifying the uphill task for Mr. Obama as he seeks to restore confidence in the country’s leadership: most networks broadcasting his remarks included, at the bottom of their screens, trading in the New York Stock Exchange, where the Dow Jones Industrial Average dipped almost 50 points during the ten minutes that the president spoke, dipping to below 11,000 at one point.

And then, the markets fell lower.

Despite Mr Obama’s comments, the Nasdaq index fell even further, losing 6.9%. The S&P’s 500 index also saw a sharp decline, falling 6.7%, its biggest drop since December 2008.

Prior to Mr Obama’s speech, the Dow had only been 2.5% lower.

So this brings to mind something Peggy Noonan just wrote for the WSJ. After all, everything is political, including the bruising budget battles and the dysfunctional debt deal. Which was followed by the Standard & Poor’s credit downgrade…

Mr. Obama’s poll numbers continue to fall, his position in the battleground states to deteriorate. From Politico: “Obama emerges from the months-long [debt ceiling] fracas weaker—and facing much deeper and more durable political obstacles—than his own advisers ever imagined.” The president seemed to admit as much when he met with supporters at a fund-raiser in Chicago. “When I said ‘Change we can believe in,’ I didn’t say, ‘Change we can believe in tomorrow.’ Not ‘Change we can believe in next week.’ We knew this was going to take time.” When presidents talk like that, they’re saying: This isn’t working.

One fact emerged rather starkly during the crisis, and it will likely have implications in the coming year. It is that the president misunderstands himself as a political figure. Specifically, he misunderstands his rhetorical powers. He thinks they are huge. They are not. They are limited.

His conviction led to an interesting historic moment, and certainly a dramatic one, during the debt-ceiling negotiations.

***
It was late Wednesday afternoon, July 13, in the Cabinet Room in the White House. Budget negotiations between Democrats and Republicans had been going on for months. The president, the vice president and congressional leaders on both sides were meeting again. Late in the meeting, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor asked the president a question. As Mr. Cantor told it this week, he was thinking about how the White House and the Republicans were still far apart on the size of budget cuts. He felt the president and his party were hung up on an insistence on raising taxes. Mr. Cantor asked Mr. Obama if he would drop his stand that the debt ceiling should be raised without dollar-for-dollar cuts. At that point, said Mr. Cantor, the president “turned to me and said, ‘Eric, don’t call my bluff.’ He said, ‘I’m going to take this to the American people.'” Then he got up and left.

The president was confident he could go over the heads of the opposition and win the day with his powers of persuasion. On July 25 he made his move, with a prime-time national address.

Boy, did it not work.

She nails it here.

The July 25 speech was of a piece with most of the president’s rhetorical leadership through the debt-ceiling crisis. Some of his statements were patronizing: We have to “eat our peas.” He was boring in the way that people who are essentially ideological are always boring. They bleed any realness out of their arguments. They are immersed in abstractions that get reduced to platitudes, and so they never seem to be telling it straight. And he was a joy-free zone.

Yes! That’s exactly what occurred to me in thinking through the daily news drama. He looks fairly miserable. He looks distinctly unhappy and unconvincing. Obama looks like he doesn’t even believe himself.

But the president is supposed to be great at speeches. Why isn’t it working anymore? One answer is that it never “worked.” The power of the president’s oratory was always exaggerated. It is true that a good speech put him on the map in 2004 and made his rise possible, and true he gave some good speeches in 2008. But people didn’t really vote for him because he said things like: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” They voted for him in spite of that. They voted for him for other reasons.

This is one of Noonan’s best of many good columns in recent times. It is all the more insightful because she was there when Reagan was there.

The president has been obsessing on Ronald Reagan the past few months, referring to him in private and attempting to use him to buttress his position in public. They say Republicans can’t get over Reagan, but really it’s Democrats who aren’t over him, and who draw the wrong lessons from his success. Reagan himself never bragged about his ability to convince the American people. He’d never point a finger and say: “I’ll go to the people and grind you to dust.” He thought speaking was a big part of leadership, but only part, and in his farewell address he went out of his way to say he never thought of himself as a great communicator. He thought he simply communicated great things—essentially, the vision of the Founders as applied to current circumstances.

Democrats were sure Reagan was wrong, so they explained his success to themselves by believing that it all came down to some kind of magical formula involving his inexplicably powerful speeches. They misdefined his powers and saddled themselves with an unrealistic faith in the power of speaking.

But speeches aren’t magic. A speech is only as good as the ideas it advances. Reagan had good ideas. Obama does not.

The debt-ceiling crisis revealed Mr. Obama’s speeches as rhetorical kryptonite. It is the substance that repels the listener.