Bill Galston’s extended look at the difficulties President Obama will face running for reelection suffers from a flaw that’s common to this genre of writing: the diagnosis of the problem is precise, data-driven, and, for Democrats, devastating. The proposed solutions are vague, presented without evidence, and mostly unrelated to the preceding analysis.
But then comes the prescriptive finale. Obama “must do two things that he has failed to do up to now,” Galston writes. “Convey a deep understanding of the suffering so many Americans are undergoing, and place our current ills in a narrative context that both explains why it has proved so difficult to restore vigorous economic growth and offers some hope for a better future.”
Nothing in Galston’s preceding analysis suggests Obama faces an empathy deficit. Rather, the numbers suggest that middle-class Americans already believe Obama and the Democrats are more sympathetic to their plight than the Republicans: “69 percent think that the policies of the congressional Republicans favor the rich, versus 9 percent for the middle class and 2 percent for the poor. Only 15 percent believe that Republican policies treat all groups equally. Here are the comparable figures for the Obama administration: 28 percent, 23 percent, 17 percent, and 21 percent.”
Galston is particularly unflinching in his analysis of these polls: “The American people know what Republicans stand for,” he writes, “and they don’t much like it.” But then how can the problem be that Obama needs to feel a bit more of America’s pain?
Nor is there much evidence that Americans are looking for a stronger narrative. As Galston says, most voters are partisans, and not inclined to have their minds changed in one direction or the other. Those who aren’t partisans and who remain undecided typically don’t pay much attention to politics and, as Galston says, vote “retrospectively”: they look at the economy and then decide what they think about the incumbent. They are not plausible candidates for a more sophisticated narrativization of the economic crisis. If Obama hasn’t convinced them of his leadership yet, he’s not likely to do so now.
The bright spot Galston identifies for Obama is, oddly enough, the Republican Party, which is choosing between candidates who don’t look competent and Mitt Romney, who doesn’t appear to be particularly inspiring. “That’s why the Republican nominating contest matters,” writes Galston,”indeed, why it may well determine the outcome of the general election.”
But what happens after the Republican nominating contest matters, too. What Obama might be able to do is convince Americans that his opponent, whoever that may be, is not ready or right to lead. Most voters already have a firm impression of Obama, but few have truly decided what they think about his Republican challengers. Obama could potentially run a scorched-earth campaign against the Republican nominee and, with a bit of luck, succeed in planting serious doubts about his or her competence, values, or empathy.
Is that likely to work? Not really. As Galston says, elections are usually about the incumbent, not about his challenger. Is it something anyone who’s not a cynical political professional feels particularly good about suggesting? Of course not. But it might work. It’s at least plausible based on Galston’s analysis. Trying to show more empathy and tell a better story isn’t.