The summer hasn’t started out so well for President Obama. He has suffered a constant barrage from critics on both the right and the left who claim he’s failed to show leadership when it comes to the Gulf oil spill. Not surprisingly, with all this hostility, the president’s poll numbers have started to slip.
Now, mid-June, Gallup finds that the President’s job approval rating is 46 percent. Just two days after the President’s Oval Office address, Rasmussen Reports found 61 percent of voters “view the president’s handling of the oil leak crisis as poor.”
Near double-digit unemployment, robust opposition to the health care overhaul, an unrelenting war in Afghanistan, and now the BP oil spill has generated consistent bad press for the president. More and more, his critics claim he is ineffectual.
The president is in trouble, and many wonder whether he can escape from what seems to be political quicksand. No matter the speech he gives, pundits and political elites just keep repeating that he is sinking — and quickly.
In the bible of public-opinion research, The Nature and Origin of Mass Opinion, John Zaller demonstrates that periodically the “flow of political communication really is…heavily one-sided.” By examining shifts in public opinion after the flow of political communication becomes two-sided, he demonstrates that public opinion is the product of information flowing from elites to the masses.
Over the course of the past few months, elite discourse has almost unanimously declared that President Obama is faltering. And critics on both sides have hit the president. Free-marketers have lambasted Obama for the stimulus package, the new health care law, and his decision to stop off-shore drilling in the wake of the oil spill. But criticism is not limited to the right. The MSNBC chastisement following the president’s address on Tuesday night certainly did not go unnoticed. In effect, there has been a one-sided, decidedly negative, flow of information to the American public.
Obama is learning that campaign rhetoric can’t carry a presidency. As Greg Sargent explains in the Washington Post yesterday, the public doesn’t care that Obama hasn’t shown more emotion or anger over the Gulf oil spill. Rather, they’re “concerned about the substance of the response.”
If the president wants to interrupt the conversation, in which an elite consensus has emerged around the “belief” that he is faltering because of his inability to act effectively, he needs to demonstrate his leadership – strongly and consistently. This is the only way he’ll generate a two-sided flow of information and change the conversation. If he does that, the White House can expect a decisive upswing in the public’s approval of the president.