With President Obama's approval rating at a new low — 42 percent according to a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll — and midterm elections coming up in November, the Democrats are in a bit of a bind.
Their legislative achievements — such as the health care law, financial regulation and the economic stimulus bill — are all under attack, and Democrats up for re-election are distancing themselves from the party.
Obama and the Democratic Party are not getting across their message that government can be a force for good, and this is leading some to say they have lost control of the national narrative.
Lessons From A Past President
One president who lost control of the national narrative early in his administration was Jimmy Carter. Julian Zelizer, a historian and author of the Jimmy Carter installment of The American Presidents series, says one story serves as a perfect metaphor for the breakdown.
In 1979, President Carter went on a solo fishing trip in his hometown of Plains, Ga. While in his canoe, a strange thing happened, Zelizer tells NPR's Guy Raz: A swamp rabbit began swimming toward him, gnashing his teeth and flaring his nostrils. Carter thought the aggressive animal was trying to enter his boat, so he splashed water and flailed his oars at the rabbit in a desperate attempt to shoo it away. A White House reporter who was watching him took a few photos of the encounter.
Back in the office, Carter told his staff about the incident, but they didn't believe him, so he ordered a print of the photo to prove it to them.
That's where the story should have ended.
But one day over tea, Carter's press secretary told Associated Press reporter Brooks Jackson about the trip. Zelizer says the story amused Jackson.
"And Jackson wrote kind of a small humorous piece, which he thought would be relatively innocuous. And he sends it out on the wire, and he doesn't really think much of it," Zelizer says.
But the media pounced. On Aug. 30, The Washington Post published a story on its front page titled, "Bunny Goes Bugs, Rabbit Attacks President." And the networks begin reporting on a killer rabbit that the president was trying to beat away. Zelizer says it became another symbol of Carter's failed presidency.
"It was a way for people to talk not just about this odd incident, but about the fact that this was a president who seemed weak, seemed isolated, literally on a boat, without any friends or allies," Zelizer says.
Obama's National Narrative
While Obama hasn't had any run-ins with wild animals, he is struggling to maintain control of the national discourse.
Obama's legislative achievements are under attack, and even some Democrats don't want to be associated with him or the party's agenda.
Matt Bai, national political columnist for The New York Times, says President Obama is trying to set the national narrative and articulate his vision for the United States — and it isn't easy.
"While people assume that the president can simply set the storyline he wants out there and the message, and get it out to the people, it's not quite true," Bai says. "There are a lot of competing messages and a lot of noise, and when the [economy is bad], it's very hard to frame that for people in a way that reflects well on you."
Since the economy is what's most important to most people right now, Bai says it is crucial for the Obama administration to clarify economic goals and policies — but it may be too late.
According to Bai, the time for Obama to clearly identify the main economic challenges and communicate his philosophy for solving them was during his first few months in office, when his approval ratings were high.
Rather than reaching out to the public and talking about economic plans then, Bai says the Obama administration turned inwards and focused its attention on the details of the stimulus bill inside Congress. Obama's silence led to a vacuum where conservative messages that government is the problem thrived and took the spotlight.
"And had the economy turned around to the extent that they told people they thought it would, we would not be having this conversation about killer rabbits. But it didn't, and that moment was lost to differentiate for people the different aspects of the problems we face," Bai says.
The sense in the White House now, Bai says, is that they have tried to communicate their legislative successes, but have had a very difficult time getting the message across to the public.
"I think the sense is, things are going to go in the right direction, it's just taking longer than [they] hoped, and unfortunately it is not on the most optimistic electoral timetable. I don't have a sense that there is a core questioning of their economic policy at this point," Bai says.
A Historical Perspective
Presidential historian Robert Dallek says it is normal for presidents to get more than their fair share of the blame when the economy tanks, just as they get too much credit when it recovers.
"One can think back to 1982 [and] Ronald Reagan. Fifty-two percent of the public said they didn't want to see him run again for president," Dallek says. "People said, 'Well, Reagan is too old to run again.' But the real issue was the economy."
Sure enough, two years later when the economy had made a complete u-turn, Reagan ran for re-election and won by a landslide.
Dallek argues Obama isn't doing anything wrong when he describes the goals and policies of his administration, but says he could be doing more to win over Congress and the public.
A good presidential role model for Obama right now, Dallek says, is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The analogy between Obama and Roosevelt isn't anything new: Obama, like Roosevelt, inherited a horrible economy from his predecessor upon taking office. Nevertheless, Roosevelt was able to turn the situation around and ended up with large majorities in both houses after the 1934 congressional elections.
Dallek says Roosevelt's success is due in large part to his innovativeness, a characteristic he thinks Obama could learn from.
"Roosevelt was an experimenter. His New Deal was like the quarterback of the football team. You try one play, it doesn't work, you move on to something else," Dallek says. "This is perhaps what President Obama needs to invoke — is the idea that we've done a certain amount, we've made certain gains, we've prevented things from being worse, but now we're going to do more."
With that said, Dallek admits times have changed since the days of FDR. There are two major challenges Obama faces that Roosevelt didn't. First, the Republican minority in the House and Senate are more substantial than what Roosevelt confronted in 1933 and 1934. Second, there is a much more complicated media climate, Dallek says.
Back then, there was radio and only a few television networks that a president had to pay attention to.
"Now, of course, you have the 24-7 news cycle with the Internet, and anything you do is going to be scrutinized — and it puts a president, any president, at a disadvantage," Dallek says.
There is still time for Obama to seize control of the national narrative before the November elections, but he will have to offer a clear vision of the problems we face and a plan to address them.
Otherwise, President Obama could end up where Carter was in spring of 1979: Alone in a boat, fighting for control of a situation he couldn't handle.