Obama Has a Listening Problem

The idea that government can spend our way to prosperity doesn't make sense to voters.

The rock star Sara Bareilles sang at President Barack Obama's Las Vegas rally for Sen. Harry Reid in October. Her biggest hit, "King of Anything," includes the lyrics, "You've got the talking down/Just not the listening." That pretty well sums up Mr. Obama's reaction to last week's midterm.

The president rejects the idea that voters don't like his policies on jobs and the economy. At his White House news conference last Wednesday, Mr. Obama observed, "If right now we had 5% unemployment instead of 9.6% . . . people would have more confidence in those policy choices."

Well, yes. But isn't unemployment much closer to 10% than 5% because the stimulus package didn't work as the president promised it would when he signed it? Mr. Obama's narrative that the economy's condition has nothing to do with his policies is nonsense.

When asked at the same news conference if he felt there was "a majority of Americans who think your policies are taking us in reverse," Mr. Obama waved off the criticism, saying that the "American people understand that we're still digging our way out of a pretty big mess.

Wrong again. Mr. Obama doesn't seem to understand that the midterm "shellacking" his party took was an explicit rejection of his policies, especially by independent voters.

This is borne out by a post-election poll released Tuesday by Democrat James Carville's Democracy Corps and Republican Ed Gillespie's Resurgent Republic. The survey found that 56% of independent voters voted for GOP candidates while just 38% voted Democratic, a 36-point swing from the 2006 midterm and a 26-point swing from the last presidential election.

Independents now look much more like Republicans than like Democrats—79% believe the country is on the wrong track and they're more than twice as likely to blame President Obama and the Democrats than to blame President Bush and Republicans.

Independents share the GOP view that the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. They trust the GOP more than Democrats on jobs and employment (50%-27%), the economy (48-25), government spending (50-23), the federal budget deficit (53-17), and taxes (54-23). A majority (51%) support extending all the Bush-era tax cuts even after hearing Mr. Obama's best arguments against extending them for people making over $250,000.

Instead of acknowledging the need for policy correction, Mr. Obama offers the now familiar excuse that it's all a communication problem. As he told the National Journal's Ron Fournier in October, his policy successes were "a lot for me to be able to communicate effectively to the public in any coherent way."

But the problem is not with the capacity of voters to grasp the brilliance of Mr. Obama's policies. Rather, the idea that government can spend our way to prosperity doesn't make sense to voters. The more they heard Mr. Obama talk about this approach, the more they rebelled.

Something similar happened with health care. The president dismisses the notion that last week's results were a rejection of ObamaCare, saying at his White House news conference that it would be "misreading the election" to argue "the American people want to see us for the next two years relitigate arguments that we had over the last two years."

But that's exactly what voters want. The Democracy Corps/Resurgent Republic poll found that 51% of all midterm voters and 57% of independents believe ObamaCare should be "repealed and replaced."

In the wake of last week's epic rebuke, Mr. Obama has two historical models to follow. He can react as President Bill Clinton did after Democrats' 1994 defeat and move to the center, which resulted in two of Mr. Clinton's greatest achievements: a balanced budget and welfare reform. Or he can emulate Harry Truman in 1947-48, sticking hard to a liberal agenda and fighting the congressional GOP for obstructing it.

It will be difficult for Mr. Obama to channel Mr. Clinton, who was a Third Way Democrat and politically nimble. In addition, after the 1994 midterms, Mr. Clinton was freed of the baggage of HillaryCare, which failed to become law. Mr. Obama is stuck with his deeply unpopular health-care reform.

But it may be even more difficult for him to pull off a Truman. It's hard to run against a "do nothing" Congress when your own party controls the Senate and the GOP's agenda is more popular than yours.

Mr. Obama is in a pickle without an obvious path to winning back independents. After turning on him so decisively, they may well tell him, in the words of Ms. Bareilles: "You sound so innocent, all full of good intent/Swear you know best/But you expect me to jump up on board with you/Ride off into your delusional sunset . . . Who cares if you disagree, you are not me/Who made you king of anything?"

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, November 10, 2010.