04 October 2013

Obama - the Poor Communicator

Obama could take a lesson from FDR and get more done by simply communicating more.

In FDR’s era, the media was largely conservative. It has been estimated that in the New Deal years, editorial pages of about 60 to 80 percent of newspapers opposed him. Regions now liberal, such as New England, were reliably Republican in those days; not a single Boston newspaper endorsed him in 1932. (Two decades later, little had changed; before John Kennedy became the first post-Civil War Democratic senator from Massachusetts, only one Boston daily, to which his father had recently given a large donation, endorsed him. As JFK commented, “You know, we had to buy that fucking newspaper.”) [p. 136 of Nassir Ghaemi’s A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness]

Ghaemi goes on to mention that FDR held a couple of press conferences most weeks – an average of about 77 a year. 

By contrast, Obama held 79. For his entire first term.

Of course Reagan was considered the Great Communicator and he only had 27 press conferences during his first term. Reagan was a great communicator but he didn't get much done. Reagan promised to cut government and it took him 8 years to cut government spending from 23% to 22% of GDP. Meanwhile, FDR in just his first 100 days passed major legislation that included the right to unionize, the Glass-Steagall Banking bill, agricultural subsidies, suspension of various anti-trust laws, and even money to bring electricity to poor areas, his Tennessee Valley Authority Act. And that was just a portion of the 12 major bills passed in his first 100 days. (Obama, now, has been in office for more than 1,700 days.)

For my nickel, Obama is comparing himself to two Republican presidents when he should be comparing himself to two Democrats. In spite of being such a great speech maker, he has this tendency to simply declare things rather than explain them when challenged. In this way he is more like W. Bush than Clinton. Clinton is a master at including an audience in his reasoning and seems to love doing it. By contrast, Bush had this tendency to just declare things in a way that reassured his base but never really won over anyone else. And of course when it comes to quantity of press conferences, Obama is closer to Reagan than FDR. In fact, in his first term Obama held fewer press conferences than any president since Reagan.

Arguably no president got more done than FDR. That suggests that press conferences are not a distraction from the real work of a president; they are the real work of a president. Obama faces an obstructionist House, to be sure. But it's hard to believe that he wouldn't be more effective if he didn't follow FDR's example. With a 24-7 news cycle, the press would love him for twice weekly press conferences. And including the American people in his thinking might make all the difference to his ability to get things done. 

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