Clark S. Judge is managing director of the White House Writers Group, a policy and communications consulting firm based in Washington. He was a special assistant and speechwriter to President Reagan.
From network reporters to online commentators, the story of the day about White House communications is that President Obama getting overexposed. That's why, media critics say, the President's approval numbers have dropped so low and his healthcare package isn't selling. But they are wrong. Something very different is happening, and it has to do not with style but with substance.
You can see the critics' point, of course.
Press conferences have come so frequently since Inauguration Day that the broadcasters have balked at the loss of advertising dollars from pre-emption of prime-time programming. To assure a broad compliment of coverage for the Mr. Obama's last full-dress media quizzing, the White House had to appeal directly to the CEOs of network parents Disney (ABC) and General Electric (NBC).
After the conference, reporters complained that, had the president not stumbled on the question about the Cambridge police officer and the Harvard professor, the hour would have proven entirely newsless—just another pitch for the healthcare package. And, according to critics, overexposure is not confined to press conferences. Every day, it seems, Mr. Obama appears on cable TV from a town hall meeting someplace promoting his health overhaul.
But just because Mr. Obama's communications blitz—including Twittering, blogging, YouTube, and op-eds—is putting stress on the media doesn't meant that it is wearing on the public. Yes, the president's job approval numbers and approval for the health overhaul keep dropping. According to pollster Scott Rasmussen (rated the nation's most accurate prognosticator in both the 2004 and 2008 elections), only 49 percent of likely voters now approve of Mr. Obama's handling of his job, compared to 51 percent who disapprove. This is a stunning reversal from January's stratospheric approval ratings. Similarly, Rasmussen reports that only 47 percent of voters favor the health takeover effort while 49 percent are opposed.
Yet when it comes to cause and effect, Mr. Obama's advocacy should move numbers up—not down—for both his program and himself. After all, he remains the same compelling speaker who so enthralled the nation during last fall's campaign. His intelligence is evident every time he takes to a podium. He himself is a tremendously likeable man with an enormously appealing wife and family.
So what's happening?
Ever since Ronald Reagan was labeled the Great Communicator, Washington and the national media have been overly enthralled with the force of White House communications. I, of course, have a personal interest in perpetuating that myth, but it is a myth. Inspiring speeches and astute media strategies are essential tools of the modern presidency, but they are far, far from the whole game. More pivotal for moving the public mind is content.
Mr. Obama's content is not selling. It is no accident that the Rasmussen organization's daily chart of presidential job approval started to dip in early June, about when the president started to lean into healthcare as a theme. It is the health campaign that is dragging Mr. Obama down, not the other way around.
By now most Americans know at least some of the particulars against the plan. It carries a trillion dollar-plus price tag that follows the trillion dollar-plus financial bailout and budget with a trillion dollar-plus projected deficit, making the promise of no new taxes to fund it entirely unbelievable. By large margins, the public rates control of spending and cutting taxes more critical than installing expensive universal coverage. Then, too, 80 percent are happy with their own health coverage and don't want the government interfering. They believe that the proposed programs would take away some element of what they have. Presidential statements have not allayed those fears.
Such is the story that polling snapshots tell. But a glance at history suggests something more fundamental.