By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers
President Obama has been called a great communicator—many say as good as Reagan—but the evidence suggests another title: Reconciler
President Obama sure can sound good, whether he's talking off the cuff, like he did at his recent healthcare summit with Republican foes, or reading important speeches off the TOTUS (Teleprompter of the United States). But is he really the great communicator many in the media say he is? As he fails to scooch along his agenda, despite heavy media exposure, his role at the bully pulpit is drawing new scrutiny.
Let's start with the critics. Fans of former President Reagan, hailed as the Great Communicator during his eight years, say Obama gives a good speech, but that's all. "The truth is," says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, "while he's a wonderfully gifted speaker, he's not necessarily convincing." Adds the potential 2012 GOP presidential candidate, "He's very articulate, but unlike Ronald Reagan, he's not a good educator."
Considering the muddled media the White House must use to convey messages and the reality of a very partisan town where tiny tasks require Battle of the Bulge-size efforts, supporters see Obama's role less as a communicator and more as a powerful negotiator like, say, Lyndon Johnson. Democratic pundit Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore's presidential campaign manager, suggests that Obama is at his best as a listener. "He's more of a reconciler and a pragmatist who yearns to bring both sides together." Of course, she adds, "that's rather tough in a town accustomed to hardball politics."
Mike McCurry, former spokesman for Bill Clinton, suggests that communications as we knew it in the Reagan and Clinton days is over. The media are splintered, and the audience has tuned out. "New media requires new approaches, and I credit the Obama White House for trying to make the bully pulpit digital and bring it into the 21st century," he says. "But however gifted the boss is as a negotiator or a communicator, there is only so much a White House staff can do to move the president's agenda when fewer people pay close attention."
Princeton presidential scholar Fred Greenstein suggests the title of Great Mediator. Obama's "a gifted mediator in a political environment that places severe constraints on mediation." When Whispers asks him to compare Obama with great presidential communicators, Greenstein says the prez is high up. "I would put him in a class with the top three—FDR, JFK, and Reagan. But that isn't to say that he is flawless."
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.