Is President Obama's problem competence or communication? Don't answer that: The answer is neither—it's the economy. But voters talk about their problems with the administration by bringing up (in)competence and (mis)communication. Why hasn't Obama done more to fix the economy? Or why hasn't he done a better job explaining what he has done?
The president and Vice President Joe Biden both made the case for communication recently. In a town hall meeting on Tuesday, Obama said the news cycle moves too quickly for people to focus on his administration's solutions to long-term problems. In a New York Times interview, the president said he and his staff took "a perverse pride" in doing what was right rather than what was politically beneficial. Biden, meanwhile, has been going around saying that the Recovery Act and health care reform law are too complicated to explain.
The alternative argument, put forward by (you guessed it) Republicans, is that Obama's problem has been competence—or, rather, lack thereof. Obama ran against the bumbling Bush administration as a smart, precise, and nonideological fellow. He is not. As evidence, Republicans cite not just the inability to pass programs but a general cluelessness. They offer overly rosy predictions about the unemployment rate after the Recovery Act, the initial assessment that the Times Square bomber was a lone operator, and the administration's lackadaisical response to the BP oil spill.
Of course, the country had lost faith in Washington long before Obama was sworn in. That's why William Galston of the Brookings Institution argued—in November 2008—that the new president had to restore trust in government's competence before doing anything. Faith in Washington has not improved. That's why people worry not just about how bad things are now, but how bad they will get. Polls show that majorities of the public think Obama has made things worse. Voters are saying, "Please stop trying to help me," says Joe Heck, a Republican candidate for Congress in Nevada.
The president (inadvertently) helped the argument of those who would blame his communication skills as well as those who question his competence in his New York Times interview. Speaking about infrastructure spending in the stimulus plan, he said, "The problem is, is that spending it out takes a long time, because there's really nothing—there's no such thing as shovel-ready projects."
Who says he can't communicate? This is a very pithy way of saying we didn't know what we were doing. If people remember anything at all from the stimulus debate, it is the administration's argument that the money would be spent immediately. There were plenty of projects that were "shovel ready," we were told, and the White House Web site is full of such proclamations. "In other words, it just needs money so construction can start," says a typical passage about a highway program in Reno (a battleground region in the race beteen Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle).
Republicans jumped on Obama's quote from his New York Times interview immediately. They are already running against the wasteful spending in the stimulus bill. "Now he tells us!" wrote Mitch McConnell's spokesman on Twitter. In California, Carly Fiorina's Senate campaign sent out a press release: "Does Boxer Agree With Obama? 'There's No Such Thing As Shovel-Ready Projects.' " Politicians may debate the ongoing stimulative effect of the Recovery Act, but it has certainly given a boost to GOP talking points.