Stephen McKenna , associate professor and chair, media studies, was quoted in a Sept. 6 Toronto Star article about the drop in President Barack Obama's approval ratings. See the story below.
|What happened to the magician of last year's presidential campaign? It's all about context|
From: Toronto Star Date: Sept. 6, 2009 Author: Mitch PotterWASHINGTON-They may not agree on much, but observers of the American condition are in ever-greater numbers remarking upon a telltale change as President Barack Obama scrambles to find the bottom of a precipitous tumble in public approval.
To the utter delight of the right and just as vexing to many Democrat stalwarts, the question today is whither Obama's mojo?
Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer put a fine point on it in Friday's Washington Post, declaring that "the charismatic conjurer of 2008 has shed his magic" against the flames of a raging health-care debate.
"What has occurred - irreversibly - is this: He's become ordinary. The spell is broken," wrote Krauthammer.
"For a man who only recently bred a cult, ordinariness is a great burden, and for his acolytes, a crushing disappointment. Obama has become a politician like others."
Reality does not seem quite so grim from the Democratic vantage, where the balance of power will remain for at least another 14 months, when mid-term elections put Congress up for grabs.
But with poll numbers showing Obama hanging on to the support of barely 50 per cent of Americans after a month of fear, loathing and high-decibel noise over health care, the party is looking to its president to turn the tide this Wednesday, in what is by any measure a critical address to a joint session of Congress. The task that day is for Obama to once and for all define his vision of the country's health-care future, a high-stakes move that many predict will hitch the success of his presidency to the issue.
If the notion of another Obama speech strikes you as unexceptional, have a gold star for paying attention. Since taking office, he's been giving them willy-nilly, from prime-time news conferences to town halls to major addresses on every one of his administration's policy planks. From a leader who promised greater openness and transparency, one should not have expected otherwise.
But throughout those critical months, as the American mood began to swing under the crush of severe economic recession, the resonance of the words seemed to ebb. And nowhere more so than on health care, where Obama sometimes came across more professorial than presidential, struggling to articulate the shape of reforms that remains uncertain to this day.
"The great lesson here is that eloquence is very often in the eye of the beholder. The mystique came in part from the audience projecting this saintly political quality. And when the mood in the room changes so does the mystique," said Stephen McKenna, a Catholic University scholar specializing in the study of political rhetoric.
"Obama is the same speaker he always was. Even during the campaign last year, I noticed verbal tics and rhetorical weaknesses. But the mood of the audience was such that they didn't bother anyone very much.
"We should always remember that if there is any magic in a democracy, it doesn't emanate just from the leader and his great speeches. That was never contemplated by the founding fathers ... they didn't even know what electrons were."
Mike Paul, a New York City public relations strategist who blogs under the name The Reputation Doctor, wrote in astonishment last year about "the mojo" Obama brought to the microphone. Today, Paul offers careful words of advice for how the resident should proceed in framing the debate.
"In a way, I think his `mojo' is to blame because it gave his team the confidence to take on too much. Obama's prowess, his ego, led this administration to grab on to the biggest issue of all and try to hit it out of the park immediately - health care. Even though it's been a trap for so many before. Look at the Clintons," Paul told the Star.
"And in the meantime, the whole country got much more worried about jobs and debt and the burdens we're putting on our grandchildren with the levels of spending today. So even though President Obama is as strong an orator as before - he hasn't lost his voice, he isn't stumbling with `ums' and incomplete sentences - it is action people are looking for, not talk."
Paul, who makes a living counselling people on such matters, suggests Obama forsake high-minded rhetoric Wednesday and hold to what he knows he can deliver.
"Lack of success has become his Achilles heel. He needs victories, even small ones, right now and in the coming months. He should speak with bravado and confidence, but only in the areas he knows he can accomplish," said Paul.
"The other opening is to call the Republican bluff. Their strategy is to delay health care until it dies, period, in the hope of delivering a massive blow to Obama's prestige. He needs to demand that Americans deserve better than that - he should demand that rather than killing something important just for the sake of killing it, they need to step up with a plan of their own. That's the mojo in this debate."
Though many of Obama's critics on the right expect the president to recover, though not to the heights of election-day frenzy, others caution that too much can be read into polls showing 51 per cent approval. The opposition, they say, includes the disconsolate on both ends of the spectrum, including many on the left who were ready for Obama to implement a mandate of wholesale change but have yet to see it.
So where, then, is the grassroots mojo in this equation - the vocal camp that helped lift Obama to power but appears to have gone all but missing as the critical policy debates unfold?
Leftist activists in the U.S. say they have been caught flat-footed since the election, standing pat and watching the debate boil even as right-wing agitators seized momentum last month, organizing grassroots rallies against health-care reform.
"We were in opposition mode for so many years that it became a struggle to get reoriented to the historic break in ring-wing rule," said Judith Le Blanc, co-ordinator of United for Peace and Justice.
"But now we're trying to get our act together, to become positive, proactive and articulate and build on the hope and belief this election brought. We did get a slow start, but there is a long way to go yet and we are determined to bring to life the grassroots movement that is there waiting to be asked."