Obama's Credit Gap - Why the President's Victories Go Unnoticed

Article written by Spencer Critchley and Zach Friend

We knew this was coming. The media have finally noticed the gap between Barack Obama's extraordinary achievements -- health care reform, financial reform and preventing a depression, to name a very few -- and his seeming inability to win credit for them. "Why can't Obama get a break?" is the meme of the day.

Of course, the issue is not so much that the president can't win credit, it's that others, including the media, can't give it to him. The loss of that distinction is in itself a sign of this disconnect.

As with any trend, there is no single cause for this one. Rather, multiple causes come together at the right time and reinforce each other.

Cause number one is simply the economy. Yes, we avoided total collapse. Yes, recovery looks to be well under way. But unemployment is still high, people are still scared and angry, and they blame the person in charge now, instead of those who actually caused the problem in the past.

The second cause is deeply ironic: Obama's very strength, it turns out, can be a weakness. After his fast rise against enormous odds, many people actually seem to believe that he is superhuman -- that he should be able instantly to unite the country, solve unemployment, end wars and terrorism and while he's at it, fix health care and end pandemics.

This ends up hurting him with both the right and the left. The right thinks he magically concealed his true socialist, terrorist-loving, dictatorial nature and that he is somehow able to "ram" legislation "down our throats." Meanwhile critics on the left see him as repeatedly falling short of what he could have done if only he had really tried -- he's already one of the most accomplished presidents in history, and yet they think he's dogging it. For both right and left, the inconvenient truth of democracy gets lost -- that you have to have the votes.

The third cause is discipline -- too much of it on the right, too little on the left. On the right, we have The Party of No. The GOP appear to be gambling everything on trying to make Obama fail, hoping voters will give him and his party most of the blame. We think this is a shameful disservice to the country. But Democrats could learn something from Republicans' ability to play on the same team.

Instead, too many Dems leave every huddle criticizing the play instead of forming up to make it work. Take financial reform - the most sweeping such reform since the 1930s. This is how the lead Democratic author, Senator Chris Dodd, described it to the media immediately afterward: "It's not a perfect bill, but we believe we've done the best we could under the circumstances..." Senator Russ Feingold took it a step further. He voted against the bill, as is of course his right. But he also saw fit to state that "It doesn't do the job, and I'm not going to be part of basically defrauding the American people into thinking it does." Who needs an opposing team when you play against your own with that kind of commitment?

We saw the same kind of thing with the passage of the greatest health care reform since Medicare, with the economic stimulus, energy reform and more. Of course we should be willing to disagree; openness to debate is part of what makes us Democrats. But being a Democrat is also supposed to mean working together for the common good. Democrats need to start running on pride in their party's accomplishments, contrasting themselves with the Party of No. As David Plouffe said so cogently, the bedwetting needs to stop.

Accomplishments, no matter how impressive, are not enough. It's the stories of those accomplishments that move hearts. The Republicans, drawing from a deep well of corporate advertising talent, are expert at telling emotionally powerful stories, often with scant concern for the truth. In response, Democrats present... facts. The facts prove that there aren't any death panels. But boy, the image of death panels sure sticks in your head, doesn't it? The facts prove that Obama deserves a whole lot more credit than he's getting. But the constant narrative to the contrary can make it feel like he doesn't. And since the media must have stories to hold their audiences, they are all too happy to repeat them. But if we kill the bedwetting, and show the contrasts, the story this November can have a much happier ending.

Boots Road Group founder Spencer Critchley is a communications consultant whose clients have included Democratic political candidates, National Public Radio, and the Emmy-winning documentary "Blink". He served on press teams for Barack Obama's presidential campaign in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Colorado.