Politicians: The Great Communicators?

July 9, 2012

In 2011, Drew Westen, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Emory University, wrote a piece for The New York Times about President Barack Obama's lack of passion. Essentially, Westen argued that President Obama had lost his rhetorical flair — the rhetorical flair that landed him in the spotlight at the 2004 DNC convention and the rhetorical flair that got him into the White House.

Today we check in with Westen and analyst Dorie Clark for their take on how Obama and Mitt Romney are doing when it comes to effectively communicating with voters.

Communicating in person

Westen believed that between Romney and Obama, Romney is the weaker contender since his communication style doesn't quite reach voters.

“Mitt Romney just seems incapable of speaking to the average person in the way that they can hear and he makes one mistake after another,” Westen said. “He just doesn’t seem genuine.”

On top of that, Romney isn’t talking about what matters most to the voters.

“He certainly doesn’t feel comfortable talking with people about the issues that really are on people’s minds,” Westen said. “Their daily lives, getting to the end of the week and having enough money to pay to put food on the table and gas in the tank.”

As for Obama, Westen said his approach had improved. At first, "It was impossible to understand what the guy was standing for. He is now following the polls much better.”

Dorie Clark agreed that Obama has been doing a better job — but not exactly a great one.  “I think Obama has found some kind of narrative for himself. Unfortunately it is the boring, standard Democratic narrative ... it just strikes me as massively uninspired,” she said. “On the other hand, it’s better than nothing, which is what he had before.” 

And despite Romney’s seemingly uncomfortable communication style, Westen said voters may lean towards Romney anyway.

“He may still win because voters may well just decide ‘Look, this Obama guy just doesn’t have the leadership ability or the vision to get us out of this. Let’s try this other guy even though we don’t like what he’s saying and we don’t particularly like him because he doesn’t seem to like us very much,’” said Westen.

In other words, maybe the message will outweigh the medium.

Communicating via ad

Most voters hear from the candidates indirectly, through ads … often so-called attack ads. In one, Obama accused Romney of outsourcing manufacturing jobs to China.

Clark had no problem with attack ads philosophically. “I am as much of a fan of negative ads as any consultant is … they are effective in terms of shaping public opinion,” she said. In this case, however, she thought the focus was all wrong.

“All this kind of ill-gotten gains, I don’t think it’s going to gain much traction,” Clark said.  “What I think Obama should be doing is talking about Romney’s flip-flopping. That is a fundamental issue of character.”

A Romney ad has a simple philosophy, touting small, simple government.” Clark commended the ad for having a clear message that could resonate well with Republican voters. “It’s consistent and shows people where Romney is coming from," she said.

Westen said that most importantly, neither of the candidates has put forth a vision of what the U.S. would look like going forward with them as president.

“They’re both enunciating the American dream,” said Westen. “But what a vision entails is what we’re not hearing from either one of them right now.”

“Things between this election now and the one Obama ran for four years ago are completely different,” Clark said. “You have to articulate a new vision that is updated.  And yet you’ve still got Romney and Obama doing the standard Republican and Democratic playbooks.”


Guests:
Drew Westen, professor and author of "The Political Brain"
Dorie Clark, president of Clark Strategic Communications
 


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