President Barack Obama's effort to sell Americans on his economic
policies isn't working because his own campaign strategy has returned to haunt
That strategy was designed to cajole voters into believing that former
President George W. Bush wasn't blowing away the recession fast enough. Many
Americans bought the argument, believing that Obama would do a better job. But
now the same impatience that carried Obama into office is starting to bedevil
his administration. Too bad; couldn't happen to a nicer guy.
"I voted for Obama, and I presume you did," a new
acquaintance said to me over the weekend. "But," he added, "he's
not done anything."
Really? A $787 billion stimulus package, Wall Street and
auto company bailouts, talk of another bailout? Remaking the health-care
industry? What more is Obama supposed to do?
My new friend isn't alone. The Rasmussen Reports' daily
Presidential Tracking Poll shows that 40 percent of American voters strongly
disapprove of Obama's performance, compared with 26 percent who strongly
approve. That's a reversal from a few weeks ago when a plurality strongly
In May, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that 55 percent of
Americans approved of Obama's handling of the economy, compared with 42 percent
who didn't. Now, 49 percent of them disapprove, compared with 47 percent who
approve. That's not a huge margin, but it falls in line with other polling that
finds Americans are losing trust in Obama's policies. This is despite some
encouraging signs, such as better housing sales and a more optimistic stock
So, why does confidence in the president continue to recede?
My pet theory, applicable to whoever is in office, is what I call the Do
Something Syndrome. It is an unreasonable expectation, based on the need for
instant gratification, that all problems can be solved quickly, if not
instantly. It grew to monstrous proportions after Hurricane Katrina, when the
public expected the overnight appearance of temporary housing, thousands of
medical personnel, caravans of fresh water and food, and 747s full of emergency
medical supplies. Bush took the thumping for this (although city and state
officials oddly were excused of any bungling). But real-world logistics just
aren't that simple, so when Bush told his Federal Emergency Management Agency
director in the aftermath, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job,"
Democrats had just the sound bite they needed to discredit the president in
front of a public that routinely expects miracles.
During the presidential campaign, Obama played the theme at
ear-ringing volume, much of it based on the premise that "doing
something" is always possible and necessary. Even though some things can't
be done quickly, effectively or even at all. I argued last year that the
actions of one man, even the president of the United States, could not "rescue"
a multitrillion-dollar economy, but such thoughts were dismissed only as
Now, the Obama administration is using the same reasoning,
reminding us repeatedly that "it takes time." With the release of
ever-higher unemployment numbers, Obama tried reassuring us that the jobs
market is usually the last to recover in a recession (true). The message is,
"Please be patient; these things take time."
And, so they do. If Obama's policies are to be effective,
patience is required. Yet, Republicans, now in a role reversal, are criticizing
Obama for the "failures of his policies." It is, of course, politics
by Republicans who used the same it-takes-time line to defend then-President
I shed no tears over Obama being fed a little of the same
kind of rhetoric he used against Bush. Obama rode the public's unrealistic
expectations into the White House. And now he has to deal with an impatient
public that he prepped for a quick resolution. Yes, anything so massive as
Obama's economic policies would take time -- if they were the right policies,
which they aren't. More of the mistaken policies won't end the recession any
sooner. So, Obama is caught in a dilemma: Does he continue to play the
it-takes-time card -- the same one that busted Bush and John McCain out of the
game -- or does he try to sell an increasingly skeptical public that things are
swell and getting better?
Apparently, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel tried the latter
when he said Obama's six-month report card would show "how we rescued the
economy from the worst recession." All that's left now is for the
president to tell him, "Rahmie, you're doing a heckuva job."
This column also appeared on ChicagoNow.com