A Failure to Communicate

Salena Zito
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Posted: Jun 19, 2011 12:01 AM
A Failure to Communicate

DETROIT – Elaine Holder fussed over her elderly parents while waiting for a flight home to New Philadelphia, Ohio.

   “We just returned from a funeral,” said Holder, who appears to be in her 50s, “but it was a good thing.

   “I was one of eight children, one of 32 grandchildren. There were cousins and grandchildren and nieces and nephews who never laid eyes on each other, all seeing each other, sometimes for the first time – connecting.

   “That is, after the iPhones were all shut off,” she added. “These young people and their parents don’t know how to connect. I mean, really connect, not on Facebook but person-to-person.

   “They learned the joys of that, and even the pains and discomforts this weekend.”

   Every day, Americans confront the joys, pains and discomforts of life: the loss of a job, the heartbreak of a child being cut from the baseball team, a diagnosis of illness and other reversals of fortune.

   When they see neighbors, towns or the country as a whole confronting a recession and job losses, they look to see if their leader is with them.

   They want to know that the young men and women from down the street, who went to high school with their children or worked beside them in the office and now are fighting three wars thousands of miles away, are foremost in their commander-in-chief’s mind.

   Projecting such commonality is not something that President Barack Obama does well.

   Given his political sermons of the 2008 election, when he wowed even the stoic, that is downright surprising to many.

   “His message has been off since the day after he won,” said one Democratic strategist in Washington. “He did the politicking flawlessly. Once he took office, his communication skills have been a series of failures.”

   Take the simple act of playing golf on weekends.

   Most golfers, according to Western Pennsylvania Golf Association spokesman Jeff Rivard, get in about 20 or so rounds a year. The president has played more than 70 rounds in two years – during a recession, three wars, a Mideast meltdown, and an economy not flourishing under his stimulus and bailout programs.

   “That is well above average, especially for a man with a schedule like that,” said Rivard. “Pretty much double the average.”

   A lot of politics is about identity. “People latch onto small things to make sure you understand who they are,” explains Richard Maranto, a University of Arkansas political scientist.

   The president, Maranto says, has gone in a completely different direction.

   “He comes across as he is, a logical, urban, Ivy League guy. That might be okay if the economy was going well or if people liked (his) policies but, as it is, it will be tough for him this election cycle.”

   When Bill Clinton ran for the presidency in 1992, he had briefers tell him things such as the price of milk wherever he campaigned. He came across as if he took time out to shop at the local supermarket, making people feel he was in touch with their day-to-day lives.

   George H.W. Bush was never good at that sort of thing; he seemed (and probably was) too preppy. Neither were Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter; each was too ill at ease, too cerebral.

   Several Democratic strategists candidly admit that the president has not been very effective at communicating in a manner that reaches voters. “They do not believe he shares their values and their concerns,” conceded one.

   Simple things, such as Obama not receiving economic briefings for more than a month, make voters scratch their heads – especially when the jobs data is anything but optimistic.

   Obama will be a formidable force for the Republican who emerges from the GOP primaries. Beating an incumbent is never easy.

   Yet no modern president has won reelection when unemployment was at 8 percent or higher. Most economists predict the country will still be above that number on Election Day 2012.

   Obama still may win without connecting, by winning group politics. He “polls at 95 percent of the black vote and above 60 percent for Hispanics,” that Washington strategist says, adding that if he continues to draw white female voters, those disconnected “value voters” may matter less.

   Then again, those same disconnected voters may play a key role, providing the winning margin in a tight race.