Obama’s focus failure

When polling to evaluate the political viability of an incumbent facing reelection, there is a battery of questions that are typically asked: name ID; job approval; deserving of reelection; trial heats against potential challengers. But one other question is my personal gold standard when it comes to judging incumbency — namely, top-of-mind recall about the incumbent: “What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear his (or her) name?”

This query is unlike the other viability questions because it is open-ended. Voters can say anything that pops into their minds, resulting in a hodgepodge of responses: recalling issue stances, recent actions, personal attributes, controversies, etc. But, first of all, you hope they recall something … anything. There is nothing more dangerous for an incumbent than finding yourself, after four or five years in office, being little more than a blank slate. It means you haven’t impressed anything of consequence on voters’ hearts or minds, leaving you open to being defined by challengers. In short, you risk rhetorically pregnant questions. “Can you recall a single thing that my opponent — the incumbent — has accomplished in the past three or four years? If not, why should we reward him with another term?” “Can you really say that you are better off today than when she was elected?”

From an analytical perspective, and assuming there is some substantive recall, how do you judge responses to the top-of-mind question when assessing incumbent viability? The conclusions are necessarily subjective and qualitative, not as clear-cut as declaring a candidate vulnerable when his trial-heat ballot falls below 50 percent. It’s hard to say precisely what sort of recall renders an incumbent safe. But mainly I am looking for concrete things like specific accomplishments or actions. I grade against soft responses, particularly “He’s doing a good job” or “I like him.” I give bonus points for concrete mentions. “He voted against the stimulus plan” or “He visited our town last week to award a federal grant to the city.”

At the bottom line, I view a candidate as vulnerable unless at least 40 percent of his or her open-ended-recall is detailed and specific. Furthermore, I hope that 20 to 25 percent of the concrete mentions fall into one specific bucket of comments, either about a particular policy arena or constituent service activity.

I bring all this up because I am already thinking about Barack Obama’s reelection prospects. It’s early, but today’s developments may dictate the outcome when we get closer to polling his viability in 2010 and beyond. Furthermore, Republicans need to start laying the groundwork now for principled challenges that are sure to come to Obama’s incumbency.

The tendency I see in the Obama administration is to be scattered. They are not really coalescing their policy and communications efforts around the creation of a 20-to-25 percent core of top-of-mind responses that should be in one bucket, such as “fixing the economy” or “ending the conflict in Iraq.” Instead, they seem intent on doing everything all at once. The result is that they appear to be doing nothing in particular. This is the bane of being too smart as a candidate and a bureaucracy. You just cannot focus.

I always remind candidates that it’s OK to keep working behind closed doors on lots of different issues, if that’s what real-world circumstances demand, but you should keep your public communication efforts centered on activity in only one or two realms. Do a good job, but do a better job telling people you’re doing a good job. This is the most important trait of great leadership in this age. If Obama doesn’t get focused soon, Republicans will be well-positioned to ask those pregnant questions about a second term.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.