Obama has given his opponents ammunition. On issues from stimulus to health care to his handling of the BP oil spill, he and his aides have blamed their problems on poor communication. "He seems to think we just don't understand what's going on because he hasn't had the chance—in his 411 speeches and 158 interviews last year—to adequately explain his policies to us," Sarah Palin wrote during the health care debate. "Instead of sensibly telling the American people, 'I'm listening,' the president is saying, 'Listen up, people!' This approach is precisely the reason people are upset with Washington."
When politicians aren't accusing their opponents of not listening, they are trying hard to show how much they themselves are. After Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat last winter, Obama made "I hear you" the theme of his State of the Union address. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., is credited with reviving her candidacy after airing an ad in which she professed that she was listening. "I'm Blanche Lincoln, and I know you're angry at Washington. Believe me, I heard you."
Republicans have constructed an elaborate listening exercise called "America Speaking Out," which seeks to solicit ideas from voters that will inform the future GOP agenda. By hearing from the people, Boehner promises, Republicans will "change the way Washington works." The theory underlying the Republican position is that if something isn't popular, the president shouldn't be doing it. Boehner has taken this view one step further. When debating whether the stimulus bill has worked, he has cited not the number of jobs created, but public opinion polls that show people don't like it. As Steve Benen pointed out recently, Boehner is using the listening exercise to avoid being specific on policy.
This view is a complete reversal from what was once the prevailing Republican view of leadership. During the Bush presidency, public opposition to the war didn't matter. As Dick Cheney put it: "It may not be popular with the public—it doesn't matter in the sense that we have to continue the mission and do what we think is right. And that's exactly what we're doing. We're not running for office. We're doing what we think is right."
This was also true of domestic affairs during the Bush era. When the president launched his plan to create Social Security private accounts, he cited the idea's unpopularity as one of its virtues. "That's why we run for office," Bush said in a 2005 speech about the political opposition he faced. (Only 35 percent of Americans approved of the plan at the time.) "Someone said, 'It's a steep hill to climb, Mr. President.' Well, my attitude is, the steeper, the better—because when you get up top, you realize you have left a significant contribution behind." By this unpopularity/elevation calculus, Obama's health care plan puts him above the treeline.
Politicians have been saying their opponents are out of touch for ages. But it's a terrible idea to link a politician's fortunes to his ability to "hear" the public. This is not a claim that comes from the cable-news era. It is the thesis of Walter Lippmann's book Public Opinion, published in 1922. Some 88 years later, politicians are debating how to stimulate the economy and tame the deficit, which will require making hard choices. Yet according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, the people politicians are supposed to be listening to in order to show they "get it" are themselves incapable of making those hard choices. Respondents said that, yes, they wanted states to balance their budgets—and then large majorities opposed specific measures required to do so. In short: They don't get it.
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