“It’s hard to message 9.5 percent unemployment”

President Obama, the finest orator-politician since Ronald Reagan, has a communications problem. In less than two years in office, the man who talked himself out of obscurity and into the White House has managed to alienate both Wall Street and Main Street. Health care reform, initially hailed as a blockbuster legislative achievement, is now universally considered a political liability. Even his persona, once so crisp and inspiring, now comes off as murky, professorial, and insular—a foil for the fusillade of rage being broadcast daily from the far right.

Indeed, six years after convincing millions of rapt convention-watchers that “my story is part of the larger American story,” Obama is seen by many as playing for some team other than America’s. It may be true that, as Robert Gibbs told me, “it’s hard to message 9.5 percent unemployment,” but here’s another verity: When an activist president is seemingly credited for nothing and blamed for everything, he’s doing a lousy job of selling himself.

Panic-stricken Democrats, fearful of losing both the House and the Senate in this month’s elections, can console themselves with a perspective check. “Every president has a communications problem,” says former Clinton senior adviser Joel Johnson, who points out that at this point in their respective presidencies, Obama’s approval rating of 44 eclipses those of Clinton and Reagan. Adds former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart, “Honestly, the guy could walk on water and there’d be exposés on ‘What’s in the water?’ I think they’ve taken the proper view, which is that they’re going to get judged once, and that’s in November 2012.”

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