GUY RAZ, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
A lot of Democrats, including people in the White House, have been scratching their heads lately, wondering how President Obama has managed to allow others to define his narrative. How, they ask, did the term stimulus and health care and even hope become toxic in the minds of many voters?
That's basically the question Velma Hart put to the president at an open town hall forum this past week.
Ms. VELMA HART: I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantel of change that I voted for.
RAZ: One of the challenges of a modern presidency is competing with all the other information out there and trying to cut through it. But the minute you start to lose control of the narrative, well, that's when the trouble starts.
And for one ex-president, Jimmy Carter, it happened on a spring afternoon in 1979. He was on a solo fishing trip in White Plains, Georgia when a rabbit helped to unravel his presidency.
Princeton historian Julian Zelizer picks the story up from here.
Professor JULIAN ZELIZER (History and Public Affairs, Princeton University; Historian): His press secretary, Jody Powell, in August of 1979 tells Associated Press reporter Brooks Jackson about this story. And he tells Jackson that Carter had been on a fishing trip, and he had been in a canoe in April when this kind of large, hissing swamp rabbit had tried to make his way onto Carter's boat, and Carter had kind of used his paddle to bat away at this rabbit.
And 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 actually think much of it.
Unidentified Man #1: ...Jimmy Carter, who promised always to tell the truth, reports the existence of a presidential attack rabbit somewhere in Georgia. Susan Spencer(ph) reports from Watership Down.
Ms. SUSAN SPENCER: Mr. Carter's story apparently goes something like this.
Prof. ZELIZER: And the Washington Post publishes the story on August 30th on the front page. And the title was Bunny Goes Bugs, Rabbit Attacks President.
Ms. SPENCER: The president wasn't hurt, but he was annoyed when he learned that none of his aides believed him. Luckily for him, one of the ever-present White House photographers...
Prof. ZELIZER: And the networks and other papers quickly pick up on the story, and there's all of these reports on this killer rabbit that attacked the president and Carter was trying to, you know, beat him away. And it became yet another symbol of a kind of failed presidency.
Ms. SPENCER: But the White House has refused to release the picture. His assistant claimed that the president didn't want to reveal the site of his favorite fishing hole. Asked later if this picture made Mr. Carter look a bit foolish, he repeated what he'd said about the fishing hole. A White House photographer...
Prof. ZELIZER: Kansas Republican Bob Dole, who was planning to run for president in 1980, he makes a joke, and he says Carter should apologize for bashing the bunny on the head with a paddle. And Dole says, in fact, the poor thing was simply doing something a little unusual these days, trying to get aboard the president's boat. Everyone else seems to be jumping ship.
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.
RAZ: That's historian Julian Zelizer, author of the book "Jimmy Carter."
Now, you may have noticed a lot of comparisons being drawn lately between the beleaguered presidency of Jimmy Carter to that of President Obama's. In the latest issue of The New Yorker, for example, Jimmy Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, implied that President Obama, like Carter, may be losing confidence in his ability to move public opinion.
So I asked Julian Zelizer whether he thinks the Obama administration has also lost the ability to frame its message.
Prof. ZELIZER: I think they haven't lost it yet, but they have relinquished it to others. It's been one of the more striking parts of his presidency. Republicans from the town hall meetings through the midterm campaigns have been able to shape this story about a, quote, unquote, "big government, liberal quasi-socialist" in the White House, which is at odds with a kind of rather centrist Clintonian Democrat who's very much a believer in a kind of market government partnership.
RAZ: These are frustrating times inside the White House, according to New York Times political columnist Matt Bai. It's not that they don't believe in what they're doing; they're just not sure how to explain it.
Mr. MATT BAI (Political Columnist, The New York Times): They see the narrative they're trying to put out there as really reaching back to 2009, right, that they came in, that they had this disaster to deal with. It was not of their making. They've kept it from getting all that much worse, which is probably true, it's arguably true, and that there's only so much they can do to turn it around on the electoral timeframe.
And I think there's been a sense in the White House that they were almost victimized by this, handed this mess, and a sluggishness to come to terms with the fact that the American public doesn't really care anymore how they came to inherit this. The American public seems to be primarily focused on what's going to happen next.
RAZ: It's always easy to point out communications, right, to say we're not communicating all the great things we've done really well, as well as we should be doing.
Mr. BAI: Well, there's no one in politics who doesn't say that when things are bad.
RAZ: Right. It's almost like a backhanded compliment to yourself.
Mr. BAI: It is.
RAZ: But was there a point in the last few months where they really did make mistakes by not allowing their story to be told in the way that maybe they thought it should be told?
Mr. BAI: I think the sense in the White House is that they have tried to communicate their successes but have had a very difficult time getting them across to people in a difficult environment. The media hasn't been helpful; the conditions haven't been helpful.
I mean, I have written that a lot of this goes back to the first few months of the administration and the expectations they set and the way they set up the programs they were undertaking.
You remember they had this moment where the approval ratings were extraordinarily high. There was a pervasive acknowledgement of the crisis. People wanted some direction, and they had a moment, I think, to lay out a series of challenges and how they would be addressed.
And what they really did was focus on that stimulus bill. 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 and whatever else, and we would be having a very different conversation. But it didn't, and that moment was lost to differentiate for people the different aspects of the problem that we faced.
But I don't get a sense from the White House that there's a sense of, wait a minute, we had the wrong policies here, we better check ourselves now, have a big long moment of introspection because the economy is not doing what we said it would.
I think the sense is it would have been nice if we could have spent even more money, but things are going to go in the right direction. It's just taking longer than we'd hoped. And unfortunately, it's not on the most optimistic electoral timetable, but we're still headed in the right direction. I don't have a sense that there is a core questioning of their economic policy at this point.
RAZ: That's Matt Bai. He's a national political columnist for The New York Times.
Matt Bai, thanks so much for coming in.
Mr. BAI: Anytime, Guy, thank you.
RAZ: So what to do? Well, presidential historian Robert Dallek says it's worth taking a look at what others did. He says ask Americans which presidents they consider the greatest.
Mr. ROBERT DALLEK (Presidential Historian; Author, "The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope"): They consistently tell you Washington, Lincoln, FDR, but then they'll add the names of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Now why? Because those are the two recent presidents who I think give people hope. They remember certain things they said.
So it's optimism, hope. And that, of course, was very much President Obama's message in the campaign: hope. But hope is sort of diminished now. It's faded. And as a consequence, somehow he needs to re-establish that sense of possibility, of vision of a better day ahead.
RAZ: Now if there's one thing President Obama can take comfort in, it's this fact: At the same point in his presidency, Jimmy Carter was far more popular than President Obama is today. But according to Robert Dallek, there's a better parallel.
Mr. DALLEK: One can think back to 1982, Ronald Reagan. Fifty-two percent of the public said they didn't want to see him run again for president.
RAZ: Which is about the same as what people are saying about President Obama now.
Mr. DALLEK: Exactly. The economy was in very poor shape. People said, well, Reagan is too old to run again. But the real issue was the economy.
Two years later, when he ran again for president, the economy had made a huge comeback, and he won a landslide. He won a massive re-election. Same could happen with President Obama.
RAZ: When you compare President Obama to his predecessors, is he doing anything wrong when it comes to trying to tell his narrative in the story of what his administration has been able to do?
Mr. DALLEK: I don't know that he's doing anything wrong. Maybe he could do more of what he's doing. Maybe he needs to get out there and be more on the hustings with a shriller voice than the one he's demonstrated.
RAZ: I mean, who did that work for?
Mr. DALLEK: Well, it certainly worked for Franklin Roosevelt. In 1934, his congressional vote was one of the two in the 20th century that showed an increase for his party, and negative feelings about the Republicans was so substantial.
And Roosevelt had made progress. He hadn't cured the Depression by any means, but there was a sense of movement in the right direction.
RAZ: Robert Dallek, I'm interested in the analogy you draw between President Roosevelt and President Obama. Of course, there were many of these analogies made when President Obama came into office because he inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression. What could President Obama learn from President Roosevelt's approach back then that worked?
Mr. DALLEK: Well, I think what he could learn is that Roosevelt was an experimenter. His New Deal was like the quarterback on a football team: You try one play, it doesn't work, you move on to something else.
This is what perhaps 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.
And he needs to be more innovative. That might be the lesson he should take from Franklin Roosevelt.
RAZ: That's historian Robert Dallek. His new book comes out next month. It's called "The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope."
Robert Dallek, thank you so much for coming in.
Mr. DALLEK: My pleasure.
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