Has Obama been neutralized for now?

A Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that even after President Obama’s address on health care, more people oppose than support “the proposed changes to the health care system being developed by Congress and the Obama administration.” Forty-eight percent oppose these change; 46 percent support them. Thus, the president’s speech appears to have produced only the smallest of bounces for his approach to health care reform.
The Post-ABC survey did find that the “gap in passion” between opponents and supporters has “begun to close, with supporters increasingly energized.” But a surge of passion among leftist is unlikely to impress Red State Democratic Senators like Blanche Lincoln whose votes Obama must have if reform is to pass.
Why didn’t Obama’s speech have more of an impact? It wasn’t any flaw in the speech or the way it was delivered. In my view, this was vintage Obama.
It’s true, as I have written before, that vintage Obama works best when he’s peddling “hope,” as opposed to a specific proposal. But Obama’s virtuoso press conference at the height of the debate over the stimulus package seemed to advance his cause.
Perhaps the liberal approach to health care reform is simply a lost cause by now. Certainly, Obama wasn’t sailing into nearly as forceful a headwind when he pushed the stimulus package.
But I think the biggest reason why Obama failed to change many minds last week is that he’s not particularly popular right now. No matter how grand the oratory and how clever the rhetorical devices, a speech will be effective only to the extent the speaker is trusted and believed. As Obama’s popularity has declined, he has become less trusted and believable.
In short, with only about half of the country now well-disposed towards Obama, it’s not terribly surprising that he was unable to boost support for an unpopular program past the break-even point. (I should add, however, that I still fear Obama could pull it off).
This doesn’t mean that Obama is a spent force on the stump or the bully pulpit. If (and I would say when) the economy is perceived as having markedly improved, Obama’s popularity could easily soar. At that point he would likely regain the ability to move public opinion his way on specific issues. But until then, it may well be that Obama is just not that formidable.


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