Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Washington Post Features

October 2, 2012

Slate: Why presidents don't need to be great public speakers

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

That's a tough position to start from when you are promising to transform the Medicare program, a proposal that does not have majority support. Romney's plan to extend the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy also doesn't have broad support.

Do the rules of presidential rhetoric suggest that there's no way that Romney can accomplish what he's proposing? Is he willing to go forward even though his Medicare reforms are likely to be unpopular, the way Barack Obama did with health care? Romney and Paul Ryan have suggested that they will receive a political benefit for taking on these hard tasks. But that's just campaign talk. There is no evidence from the real world that this is true.

These were the questions Newt Gingrich was noodling when he raised doubts about Paul Ryan's plan to transform Medicare. The country wasn't ready for "right-wing social engineering" any more than it was ready for left-wing social engineering, Gingrich argued, because to make big changes you can't change public opinion, you need to shape it. So what was the plan for getting the country in the right frame of mind to accept it?

The limits of Barack Obama's communication skills have already been exposed. He is not going to be a more effective story-teller in his second term, but then again, his ambitions are less lofty than Mitt Romney's. Obama's agenda — to manage future budgets to reduce growing inequality through protection of investments and rearrangement of the tax code — is essentially in line with public opinion. Polls show that the public trusts him to handle issues of Medicare, taxes, and health care (despite disapproval of the Affordable Care Act). Without another election to worry about, Obama might feel emboldened to negotiate on behalf of those popular positions in the budget fight that will start the day after Election Day as he tries to avoid the fiscal cliff created by last year's budget deal and the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts. Whoever the next president is, when his term begins, he's going to have a lot of explaining to do.

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Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent. On Twitter: @jdickerson

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