Presidential comfort zone

Pundits and the press have been waiting breathlessly the past few weeks for President Obama’s polling numbers to tumble. By all the normal rules of the game, the public’s split opinion on his stimulus spending and bank bailout plans and the violent reaction to AIG’s bogus bonuses should have driven his approval ratings into the basement.

It hasn’t happened. In spite of America’s worries, we still like the president. Obama’s job approval ratings remain in the 60s, a very comfortable place for someone who was elected with 52 percent of the vote.

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Voters think the guy is doing all he can to turn the economy around. They generally believe he was dealt a bad hand and is playing it well. Their anger remains focused on the perpetrators of this mess — Wall Street and the Washington politicians who gave them the keys to the candy store. Bottom line — they like the guy.

The president’s media blitz over the past two weeks, including his second primetime news conference in 60 days, has shown that it is all about the messenger. Even though he’s often carrying news we aren’t all that excited about, Americans like hearing from him. Voters are not tired of Obama; in fact, they can’t seem to get enough of him.

Obama’s appeal is, in part, because he is so comfortable — in his skin and on television. Especially when he gets away from the teleprompter, he comes across as a very smart, very competent guy you’d like to just hang with for a while. His “Tonight Show” gig, despite the unfortunate Special Olympics joke, was a great example of his ease with the medium. Even during his “gallows humor” interlude on “60 Minutes” we got the clear message that he knew he was dealing with tough problems but was comfortable and confident in taking them on.

In his second live, primetime news conference in as many months, Obama continued to portray himself as a man who could and was doing his job. To my eye the live event got off to a shaky start. The president has grown a little too reliant on the teleprompter, a fact that has been noted in the press and has been all too obvious to the public.

On Tuesday night the president’s handlers abandoned the usual pair of “see-through” prompters snug against the podium in favor of a large stationary one at the back of the room. That only made it more obvious he was reading his remarks, which sounded canned. His fixed, straight-ahead gaze prevented him from making eye contact with anyone in the room or the television audience. The “hidden” prompter fooled no one and most of the networks covering it managed to get at least one wide shot that clearly showed his speech rolling by in large type. He needs to end his constant reliance on the device — which is fine for large-audience set speeches but seems contrived in a more intimate setting.

Once he abandoned the prompter and started taking questions, the show came alive. He had his talking points down and he stuck to them, several times steering questions on other issues back to healthcare, energy and education. He defined the terms of the debate as whether we’d continue to live with a “bubble-to-bust economic policy.” He drew a sharp distinction between his approach and past administrations that went for a short-term fix rather than long-term solutions. He said, “The alternative is to stand pat and to simply say we are just going to not invest in healthcare, we’re not going to take on energy … we’ll not improve our schools … and we’ll continue to contract, both as an economy and in our ability to provide a better life for our kids.” The president said, “This budget is inseparable from this recovery” and then continued to find ways to hammer that point home.

The president’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said recently that “the president believes that a continued dialogue with the American people about where we are and where we’re going is necessary … in times like these. ” It was clear that Obama was using this venue to speak to the real audience — millions of television viewers, not the reporters crammed tightly into the room.

To viewers in the real world outside Washington, he came across as someone who has a handle on the long term. “I will be persistent,” he said. America believes him. In terms of selling his economic package, the message is the messenger.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com