On Communication, Leadership, and "Making A Statement"

Ezra Klein has an interesting post up today showing that ahead of the Republican takeover of the House and increased Republican numbers in the Senate, and a month and a half after major electoral losses for Democrats, President Obama is still more trusted by the American people than Republicans.

This isn't necessarily surprising except when you consider that at similar points after big election losses, the party opposite has been more trusted than the President.  Here are the last three big losses for the President's party in Congress:

Americans trust Obama over Republicans

Just put these in the numbers, after the 1994 loss, Republicans were beating President Clinton on this question 49-34, and after the 2006 election, Democrats were beating President Bush by 57-31.  Yet, now, Obama is beating the Republicans by 43-38 margin.  The graph was done from data from the Washington Post/ABC News post-election poll.

The same poll also finds President Obama's approval rating inching up, and returning to positive territory with 49% approving and 47% disapproving.  Americans trust Obama by a wide margin over Republicans (53-38) to do a better job helping the middle class, and believe that he's more sincere than the Republicans in wanting to reduce the federal deficit.

These numbers beg a question.  There has been plenty of questions on messaging on the Democratic side, and I myself think that Democratic messaging needs to improve, but the President has done a remarkable job in preserving the trust of the American people in a very very tough economic time and an equally tough election for his party.  As Ezra Klein said in his article,
There's been a lot of criticism of Obama's communication skills lately, but if you look at the polls, he's doing a far better job than his predecessors did preserving his brand within an unfriendly political environment.
So to that degree, it appears that the President has in fact been able to communicate to the American people that he will have their back.  I believe that with the recent tax deal, he preserved that trust.  He showed Americans that he, not the Republicans, will watch out for them when the chips are down and the cost is high.

That type of advantage, on the back of an election loss, may just be why the President is still able to assert leadership in the lame duck Congress.  That's why he's able not to wait till the next Congress to still do major legislation.  DADT repeal seems finally within striking distance of likely, and if this is done, this will have major implications for social justice and the progressive movement in this country.  The START treaty's prospect is also cautiously optimistic despite Sen. Kyl's whining about the interruption of his precious vacation time.  A food safety bill and an expanded school lunch program have already been passed and become law.

Michael Shear points out in the New York Times:
Taken together, the scope of legislative activity has surprised many people in Washington who last month had expected little to be accomplished between Republican victories in November and January, when scores of new conservative lawmakers arrive.
This is where leadership makes all the difference.  President Obama, facing an election loss, did not curl up into a fetal position and simply wait for the next Conrgess to arrive.  Instead, he pushed through with his agenda.  The American people saw a humbled President, but not a weakened one.  Those who confuse the President's patience (the "he's taking too long" crowd) with weakness underestimate Barack Obama's (and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid's) tenacity.  They underestimate his leadership.  And they also underestimate the President's ability to communicate his values to the American people.

There are those who wanted the President to react to the election results with indignation and immediately set up a "fight."  I wonder if any of the progress in the lame duck session would have been possible had the President done so.  When he did not do so, the detractors immediately claimed that the President had failed to make a statement (or worse yet, made the wrong statement) and conceded to the Republicans.  On the contrary, Barack Obama responded not at the podium but on the arena of policy work.  He did not go to the press conference and make a big statement to take on Republicans.  He instead is pushing through an ambitious agenda that makes the statement far more clearly and loudly: Barack Obama is still the President of the United States, and he is proud of the progressive agenda he is pursuing for the American people.  That's why the agenda did not stop at an election setback.

A lot of us have a lot of opinion about making a statement.  Voters make statements by voting against the incumbent party when they're mad.  Legislators make a statement by voting against something because they feel left out of the negotiating room.  The President of the United States, too, made a statement.  He made a statement by not backing down.  He made a statement by protecting the middle class and the jobless.  He made a statement by working for social justice.  He made a statement, in other words, by being presidential.

And the American people seem to be hearing him.  In a volatile economy, people are still weary, still skeptical of Washington.  But they are hearing their President and giving him the benefit of the doubt.  And in so doing, they are telling the Republicans: get it together and work with this President to rebuild the American middle class and solve our problems.  That, I think, is the most important of all the statements being made these days.