Obama and the Loss in Massachusetts: Is it the Messenger or the Message?

Published Jan 22, 2010. By Joann M. Weiner.

Nobody ever called President Obama the Great Communicator. That honor belongs to President Ronald Reagan. But during the 2008 campaign Obama became known as the Great Orator for his ability to inspire the American people -- "Yes, we can" -- that anything was possible. 

In 2010, however, the president is struggling to get his message across. Despite campaigning for the Democratic candidate in Massachusetts, Obama's efforts were not enough to prevent Republican Scott Brown from trouncing Martha Coakley in the race to fill the seat the late Sen.Ted Kennedy had held for 46 years shows.

What happened? Some commentators believe that the Democrats lost the ability to communicate with the American people.
Concord Coalition chief economist Diane Lim Rogers, a former Clinton White House economist, counts herself among those who think the problem is in the messenger.
"The Massachusetts race is not the real issue. The bigger issue with the Democrats is not that they don't have good ideas, because they do have a lot of good ideas. It's that they have not kept the American people engaged in the process," Rogers said.
"Take the example of health care," Rogers suggested. "The American people know that health care reform is going to be difficult and they intuitively understand that there are trade-offs in life and that health care reform can't be a win-win situation for everyone. Unfortunately, the president has not explained how health care reform will help the American people, preferring instead to just ask us to trust him. But, Obama needs to be more explicit than that. The fewer details the president provides about the true costs of health care reform and that enacting reform requires making tough choices, the more likely it is that the American people will say that 'It sounds like fantasy.'" "Many of the president's health care reform ideas, such as reducing the growth in health care costs by reducing wasteful spending, sound too good to be true," Rogers said.
Not everyone blames the messenger. Some are blaming the message.
"The Massachusetts election certainly was all about health care reform," said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute think-tank and the chief economist in the Department of Labor under President George W. Bush. "People know that the president would like to turn the insurance system into the equivalent of a regulated utility. Scott Brown specifically ran against Obamacare."
Furchtgott-Roth goes beyond health care and questions the whole Obama message.
"People don't like the $787 billion spent on the stimulus (of which two-thirds has not yet spent), nor the $700 billion for the TARP (the Troubled Asset Relief Program), nor the $850 billion projected cost of health care reform," she added.
Above all, as Furchtgott-Roth points out, Americans "want to get back to work." More than 15 million people are unemployed, and the ratio of Americans who are in the labor force and looking for work is at its lowest level since 1985, she said. More important, she added, some 850,000 people have gotten so discouraged about their job prospects that they have left the labor force.
Is putting America back to work the most important task facing the president?
Furchtgott-Roth thinks it is. To bolster her argument, she noted that more than 40 percent of the unemployed have not worked in more than six months. And, as she highlighted, the longer people are out of work, the harder it is to get back to work as "people develop habits like getting up late in the morning to watch TV or staying out late at night."
In Obama's defense, health care reform could boost employment, creating up to 400,000 jobs a year for the next decade, the Center for American Progress reports. It's easy to see why health care reform has this impact -- as costs fall for employers, they can use those savings to hire more workers.
However, the same argument could be made for any policy that reduces employer costs.
Furchtgott-Roth would solve the unemployment problem not by increasing spending -- she believes that the stimulus plan has failed -- but in the old-fashioned Republican way, by cutting taxes.
In addition to supporting the continuation of the Bush tax cuts, Furchtgott-Roth advocates a temporary payroll tax cut that would be shared by employers and employees.
"Giving employers a tax cut will encourage them to hire new workers, while giving employees a tax cut will encourage them to spend," Furchtgott-Roth asserted.
Moreover, Furchtgott-Roth argues that the Obama administration's policies will lead to job losses.
"I find it amazing that on the very day that the Labor Department reported an additional 85,000 jobs lost in December that the EPA announced tightened ozone regulations that will lead to job losses," she said. The EPA estimates that the proposal might provide from $13 billion to $100 billion in health benefits at a cost of from $19 billion to $90 billion.
Addressing global warming is important, she concedes, but she questions the timing of the EPA's proposal. "The EPA didn't have to propose these job-reducing regulations now, right in the middle of a recession."
So, is the problem with the messenger or with the message? Would the president be able to enact his policies if he explained them more clearly to the American people, as Rogers suggests? Or, are the policies themselves wrong, as Furchtgott-Roth suggests?
In my view, as long as the recession, which by the way, has just entered its third year, and the monthly job losses continue, people don't really care about the environment, health care reform, and immigration policy -- they just want to get back to work.

That's my message to the messenger-in-chief.