Hoping there’s a there there

By Ken Feltman

There is no there there.
– Gertrude Stein

President Obama has given another technically excellent speech, this one explaining why the United States is in Libya. Despite his smooth delivery, his message was not convincing. The faces of his advisors during and after the speech betrayed their verdict: The magic is gone.

Throughout his life, Obama has been able to navigate difficulties with his communications skills. Now, the perceived lack of substance seems to have overtaken Obama’s skillful delivery. The signs are getting easier to spot. Participants in 13 focus groups convened to watch the Libya speech were asked if they would have watched Obama if they had not been part of the focus group. The last time we asked that question, 78 percent of the participants said yes. This time, 43 percent said yes. Asked why they would have skipped this speech, people gave answers that, boiled down, suggest that they did not think they would learn anything new.

A woman in Ohio: “He always says about the same thing no matter what he talks about.” A man in Nevada: “He doesn’t ever say much…. He talks around the reason he’s giving the speech.” A man in Michigan: “He doesn’t talk about what I want to hear. He’s changing the subject.” Asked what he wanted to hear, that man said: “You know and he knows. The economy, stupid. Jobs, why the big banks make all the money and they take peoples’ houses away.”

People who agree with Obama are not happy

Another telltale finding: People who agree with Obama’s Libyan decision are still unhappy. A man in New Jersey: “He didn’t convince me that he knows why he’s in Libya. Maybe he got pushed into it, maybe by (Secretary of State Hillary) Clinton. He sounded like his heart isn’t in it.” A woman in Colorado: “He hasn’t thought it through.”

A woman in Arizona: “I don’t think he knows what he’s doing or why.” A woman from Ohio: “He can’t explain things so we understand. This is like that healthcare thing. He’s never explained so I can understand why he did that. Now he can’t explain why he bombed Libya.”

“Obama is an American as far as I’m concerned,” said a man from Nevada, “but he’s not the same kind of American as I am or most of you are. He thinks we’re just another country, like a lot of other countries, nothing special. Well, the Japanese didn’t get a lot of help from China or Russia or Europe. The (Libyan) rebels didn’t ask China or Russia, either. Europe only got involved because we didn’t.”

An echo of American exceptionalism?

A woman from New Jersey: “We have an extra obligation because of who we are. The U.S. is expected to be there when trouble hits. Usually we have been. Now, with Obama, who knows?” Another woman in the same group responded: “He doesn’t seem to know. For such a smart man, he doesn’t plan ahead or have things figured out, he just seems to delay until he’s pushed into action.” A man followed those comments: “I’m tired of hearing how smart he is. If he’s so smart, why is everything a mess? He never decides till too late.”

A man in Michigan asked his fellow participants to raise their hands for two options: Is Obama a strong or weak leader? Seventeen percent said strong. Fifty-six percent said weak. The remainder said they wanted a choice in the middle. When so-so was suggested they rejected it as the equivalent of weak. This brought on a discussion about why the U.S. needs to be a strong leader. “We must have strong leaders. Obama is anything but,” a man said. “He’s had a different upbringing and he’s really not part of us,” said a woman. “It’s sad and it’s tragic,” said another woman, “but I think we elected the wrong man.”

“He’s like a professor analyzing what happened long ago. It’s like he has no sense of urgency. He’s reflecting. That’s why he’s so late deciding,” said a man from Arizona. “He gives a good speech but it’s like he’s talking about a different time or something, like this isn’t happening now,” said another man in Arizona.

Who are these people?

Before you jump to conclusions about the political persuasions of the focus group participants, you should know that all class themselves as independent voters who voted for Obama in 2008. If they could re-do that vote, 44 percent would vote for Senator John McCain, who lost to Obama in 2008. Twenty-four percent would vote for Obama. The remainder are uncertain but several volunteered that they would not vote for Obama again, even if that meant they would not cast a ballot in 2012.

Several people said they would vote for any Republican except specific Republicans that they dislike. Most often, the disliked Republicans were former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Interestingly, a primary reason Palin and Gingrich are not liked is that both are seen as too self-centered to succeed as president. Obama is seen as self-centered by these same participants.

Take it or leave it, these are some conclusions from 13 focus groups. The White House is conducting daily research. It is hard to imagine that the president is hearing many positive things from independent voters. Are the swing voters worn out with this president?

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About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Feltman founded the U.S. and European Conflict Indexes in 1988. The indexes have predicted the winner of every U.S. presidential election beginning in 1988, plus the outcome of several European elections. In May of 2010, the Conflict Index was used by university students in Egypt. The Index predicted the fall of the Mubarak government within the next year.
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