Speech Therapy

Obama discovers the limits of communication.

Also in Slate, Eliot Spitzer has six strategies that could save Obama’s reform agenda. See images from Obama’s first year in office, as well as past presidential speeches, from Magnum Photos.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

“Communications failure” is the phrase being used by the White House and assorted commentators to explain the collapse of health care reform and other parts of President Obama’s agenda. According to this reasoning, Obama hasn’t pursued the wrong goals. He has simply failed to articulate them. And tonight’s State of the Union could somehow change that.

There are two problems with this theory. First, it’s not as if the administration has failed to articulate its message. Second, even if it has, it’s unlikely the State of the Union will make a difference.

Obama himself seems to subscribe to the notion that no one is listening. “What I haven’t always been successful at doing is breaking through the noise and speaking directly to the American people in a way that during the campaign you could do,” Obama told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos after Republican Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts last week. Spokesman Robert Gibbs, meanwhile, argued on Tuesday that the administration was out-communicated by its opponents. Health care reform “became a caricature of its component parts,” Gibbs said.

In one sense Gibbs is right: Ever since the inauguration, and especially since the health care debate began in earnest in the fall, the Obama administration has done nothing but communicate. Between the town halls, the weekly presidential addresses on YouTube, the prime-time speech on health care to a joint session of Congress, and the constant hawking of the administration’s line on cable news—all of which drew charges that Obama was “overexposed“—it’s hard to say that the White House hasn’t done enough talking. Yet certain memes—”death panels,” anyone?—took hold despite the administration’s efforts.

So “communications failure” seems too pat an explanation for the collapse of the administration’s plans for health care reform. It’s an easy political fall-back. When something doesn’t go your way, it’s not because of a flaw in the policy. It’s not because you failed to organize your supporters. It’s because you failed to articulate your goals and why they’re important. In the spectrum of political failings, it’s the least blameworthy, since it leaves open the possibility that people just don’t get it.

There are more plausible—and just as easy!—explanations. One of the best is that the administration has simply been battered by a series of unfortunate events. If Ted Kennedy had not died when he did, there would be no talk right now of a “communications failure.” Same if Martha Coakley had run a better campaign. Or if Senate Democrats had not spent so long trying to court Republican votes that never materialized. If these events hadn’t played out the way they did, we’d be talking about Obama’s patience, Rahm Emanuel’s diplomacy, and the White House’s shrewd communications strategy.

What must be frustrating to the administration is that its talking points are hardly unique. Most independent experts, including the Congressional Budget Office, say that both the House and Senate versions of health care reform would reduce the deficit. The White House has repeated this numerous times. Yet 68 percent of Americans believe it would increase the deficit. The CBO says that reform would be fully paid for, be it through taxes on the wealthy or a tax on so-called “Cadillac” plans. Obama mentions this often. Yet more than 75 percent of Americans think it would lead to higher taxes for the middle class. Perhaps the most telling contradiction is that while many Americans believe that reform would improve care, costs, and access for the country as a whole, they think it would hurt them personally—a logical conundrum, if not an impossibility. The White House may be suffering from a communications failure, but it’s not for lack of talking.

An alternate theory, of course, is that Americans hear quite well what Obama is saying, thank you—they just don’t believe him. If that’s the case, then he may need more than a single speech to turn sentiment around.

At any rate, Obama doesn’t seem to be preparing a State of the Union speech in which he articulates the need for health care or stimulus more clearly than before. Quite the opposite: The walk-up has featured a raft of entirely different proposals: the bank tax, reforms of the financial industry, the freeze on some pieces of non-defense, non-entitlement spending. Meanwhile, Harry Reid has been furiously tamping down expectations for health care reform. In other words, the White House isn’t trying to communicate better. It’s changing the subject.