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His approval ratings have dipped in the last month, from 50 percent to 41 percent, according to a new poll by New York Times/CBS News. That's surprising, given recent improvement in employment indicators and in the overall economy. Gas prices over $4 a gallon likely are hurting him. Obama still edges Mitt Romney head-to-head, though by only 47 percent to 44 percent, according to the poll. (The president beats Rick Santorum 48 percent to 44 percent.)
But can Obama step up to a podium and turn things around? No.
In the New Yorker this week, Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein points out that even presidents known as persuasive orators haven't seemed to profit from their speeches. The job-approval ratings of Ronald Reagan, the "Great Communicator," actually were slightly below average for a president. "It was only after he left office that Americans came to see him as an unusually likable and effective leader," Klein writes. And the vaunted "Reagan Revolution" was less a product of Reagan's persuasiveness than of the public sentiment that predated him, according to many political scientists and even some of Reagan's closest aides. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fireside chats, likewise, did not set the nation on fire—FDR gave only two or three a year, and they neither made him more popular nor helped him pass legislation, Klein says. Bill Clinton traveled to almost 200 cities and towns in 1993 and 1994, his first two years in office, to push his agenda. The result: his approvals ratings fell, his health-care bill failed, and in November 1994 the Republicans won the House for the first time in four decades.
Because the party that doesn't have the president needs him to do poorly ("If he wins they lose," Klein writes), it's almost inevitable that when a president speaks up, the other side will trash whatever he says. This seems especially true when a president wants to pass legislation. "The more high-profile the communication effort, the less likely it is to succeed," Representative Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat, tells Klein. That's why Obama didn't talk much about a payroll-tax cut before the midterm elections, according to David Axelrod, Obama's former senior adviser: "We worried that if we included it in our rhetoric it might pollute the issue and impair our chances of getting it done after the election." (Quiet negotiations don't always work either, Klein observes—they didn't when Obama huddled with House Speaker John Boehner last summer about the debt ceiling.)
But even if public persuasion doesn't persuade, a president has to give it a shot, Klein says: "Aggressive, public leadership is typically ineffective and, during periods of divided government, can actually make matters worse. But passivity is even more dangerous. In that case, you’re not getting anything done and you look like you’re not even trying."