Ross Douthat sketches out an entertaining theory of presidential politics, in which candidates are graded on a three-factor scorecard. A great candidate needs to be a great manager, a great persuader, and a great demagogue. But it’s hard to be all three! Normally successful presidents just do two. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were communicators and demagogues with weak management skills, Eisenhower was a manager/persuader while Nixon was a manager/demagogue. Failures like Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry were one-skillers, “good managers, more often than not, whose organizations outlast demagogues and persuaders in the primaries but who can neither rally the base nor inspire the center in the general election.” F.D.R. dominated the scene to an unprecedented degree because he hit the trifecta. And what of Barack Obama?
In 2008, Barack Obama seemed to have almost F.D.R.-like gifts: He out-managed, out-inspired and out-demagogued both Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
But the presidency, unexpectedly, has exposed his limits as a communicator. Now when Obama demonizes, it seems clumsy; when he tries to persuade, it falls on deaf ears. Unlike Reagan and Clinton, the two masters, he seems unable to either bully or inspire.
What Obama has left, though, is the same capable, even ruthless organization that helped him over the top last time around.
This is fun stuff. The reality, however, is that in both 1936 and 1940 F.D.R. got to run on the strength of robust recovery from a depressed economy. If Obama had managed to engineer the kind of extremely rapid growth that FDR oversaw in his first term, his opponents would be discredited and people would be writing articles about how his awesome speeches had won the heart of the American center while keeping his base mobilized and engaged. But because conditions aren’t very good, we have articles about how he’s lost his touch. If the recovery strengthens throughout 2012 and Obama gets re-elected, expect to read a lot of articles about how he regained his ability to connect.