Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Failure to Communicate

It is likely that most voters will, in Sara Palin's own word, "refudiate" Democrats in November's midterm elections. According to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, an overwhelming majority of Americans think their country is heading in the wrong direction, and only one quarter believe the economy will improve during the next year.

The fact is most Americans have not recovered from the recession brought about by the disastrous economic policies of President George W. Bush. One in six Americans is looking for a job, and the average time needed to get a job has ballooned to a record six months.

President Obama was elected to put America back on the right track and to fix America's ailing economy. So much for the "Change You Can Believe In" promised by presidential candidate Barack Obama. And the Obama White House has made their share of mistakes. As a result, it is likely that both houses of Congress will undergo a change in control this November as Republicans sweep Democrats out of their leadership positions.

Meanwhile, the White House has tried to pin blame on obstructionist Republicans and failed Bush economic policies. But the charges are not swaying the public. In fact, 58% of those polled by NBC/WSJ believe that, when it comes to the economy, Republicans will do things differently than Bush. And likely voters from the generic poll favor the GOP over Democrats by 49% to 40%. Even though President Obama's personal approval rating is okay, he clearly is not an asset in many Congressional districts where his presence on the 2008 ballot helped sweep many Democrats into office.

For sure Republicans have been playing with a weak hand. But they have been disciplined in their efforts to stall any Obama initiatives simply by saying "no" and to fan the flames of discontent through distortion and misinformation. They have helped feed a narrative that President Obama is a disengaged elite socialist in favor of more government, more debt and more taxes. Some have even questioned whether the president is a natural born American or a Christian. And the GOP's efforts are paying off.

But this is big league, rough and tumble American politics. There are no surprises here except that the White House has consistently failed to communicate effectively with Americans. For instance, the White House assured Americans that passage of the "stimulus" package would keep unemployment from going above 8.5%. They handed Republicans a metric by which to deem the measure a failure and a waste of money. Yes, most economists believe the stimulus package prevented unemployment from getting worse, but most Americans have not benefited from it and therefore believe Republicans.

The president used enormous political capital and resources to get historic health care reform passed. But to this day most Americans do not understand what is in the bill or what it will mean for them. This lack of clarity, and the fact it will not be fully implemented for years, has created an information vacuum easily filled with fear tactics and distortion. And since the political battle for passage was more unpleasant for most Americans than a root canal, today many view health care reform as a negative!

The Republicans are staunchly defending the so-called "Bush tax cuts" which are scheduled to lapse at the end of the year. The cuts are funded entirely by taxpayer debt, more than $3 trillion worth since they were enacted. President Obama wants to let the portion of tax breaks going to the wealthy lapse to lessen the government deficit, but Congress will have to sign off on this proposal. Republicans have convincingly responded that President Obama wants to increase taxes and stifle the economic recovery.

Thirty years ago President Ronald Reagan survived a recession, major losses during his first midterm elections and a lower approval rating than President Obama at a similar time in his first term, to be reelected. But President Reagan had an outstanding team around him that understood the importance of clearly communicating to the American public and how to leverage the media. Of course, an economic recovery helped lift President Reagan to victory.

Today it appears that the American economy will take years to recover. And, with Republicans controlling at least one chamber of Congress, Washington is likely to be in massive gridlock. A failure to immediately communicate clearly and effectively to the American people will assure a one term presidency.

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