Thursday, September 19, 2013

Obama and the Velcro presidency -- Sept. 19, 2013 column


Thirty years ago, Democratic Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado said President Ronald Reagan had perfected the “Teflon-coated presidency.”

Reagan could shed scandal the way Teflon allows eggs to slide from a frying pan, she griped.

It was a great line but a bit of a stretch. Reagan wasn’t as popular in office as all that. He became a conservative icon only in retirement. Once, in a period of high unemployment in 1983, his job approval rating dropped to 35 percent.

But he bounced back. Reagan’s genial manner connected with voters even when corruption and other misdeeds afflicted his administration. At this point in Reagan’s second term -- September 1985 -- 60 percent of Americans approved of the job he was doing, according to the Gallup presidential tracking poll.

Sixty percent is hardly stellar, but it would be a welcome gain for President Barack Obama, whose job approval rating hovers around 45 percent, roughly the same as his predecessor, George W. Bush, in the first September of his second term.

Reagan  may have had a Teflon coat, but later presidents have seemed wrapped in Velcro. In these hyper-partisan times, both Obama and Bush have faced blame no matter what they did. Just last Monday, when a gunman killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard, Obama went forward with a speech criticizing Republicans on the economy.

The extent of the carnage wasn’t known when Obama, at the Old Executive Office Building, said, “We are confronting yet another mass shooting.” After speaking for about two minutes on the tragic event, he turned to his prepared remarks and criticized Republicans for threatening a government shutdown that could imperil the economy.

Republicans blasted the president as callous, but had he scrapped his planned remarks and focused on, say, tougher gun control measures, he would have been accused of using the massacre for political advantage. He can’t win.

Reagan never had to worry about opponents wielding lightning-fast tweets. Even before Obama was criticized for keeping to his schedule during a tragedy, critics raked him over the blogosphere for his handling of Syria. Before that, opponents eviscerated him for his health care plan. It stops insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions and helps millions of Americans get affordable health insurance, but most people don’t know that.   

A majority of people still disapprove of Obamacare, and about one in four say lawmakers should do whatever they can to make it fail, according to the latest Pew Research Center and USA Today poll.

Obama seems to think that Americans are reasonable people and will see the advantages of his plan. He has never yet used the most power piece of real estate he controls – the Oval Office – for a televised address to the nation on health care. Why not?

It’s hard to imagine Great Communicator Reagan missing that opportunity. Reagan set the record for televised Oval Office addresses, speaking to the nation from the big desk 34 times. By this time in his presidency, he had spoken two dozen times from the Oval Office.

The Obama team has no shortage of tweeters who tweet, but the boss has given only two prime-time, Oval Office addresses. They were three years ago, one about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and one on the end of combat operations in Iraq.

Obama’s predecessor also was no fan of the Oval Office address. Bush gave six major Oval Office addresses during his two terms.

Some Obama advisers dismiss the Oval Office address as a relic of the last century. Yes, times have changed since Reagan could announce a prime-time speech, assured that the three major TV networks would carry it and that his message would dominate the next day’s news.

But the Oval Office is still the most powerful room in America. Obama apparently prefers walking down the hall and standing at the lectern in the East Room, as if he’s at a news conference when he isn’t.

My guess is Obama may yet resort to another Oval Office speech, but his delay has cost him. He gets zero credit for slowing the rate of health care cost inflation and all the blame for businesses’ deciding to stop providing health insurance to employees.

He promised people who get insurance through their jobs that they’d be able to keep their plans. He apparently did not foresee that some big companies would use the changing insurance landscape as an opportunity to cut back on benefits.

Obama doesn’t have a Teflon presidency, and it will take more than tweets to unwrap his Velcro coat. The Oval Office is waiting.

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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