The President’s basic communication problem is that he doesn’t talk to his opposition in their terms. In other words, he doesn’t articulate the best of the opposition’s argument according to their satisfaction and then show where his argument is superior. He constantly reminds folks who disagree with him that he “understands their concerns”, but this only shows that he’s congenial, not that he understands their concerns.
As Joe Scarborough recently pointed out, he didn’t use to be this way. When the President was governor of Texas, he was funny, empathetic, and always subtle. He convinced Texans of all stripes that he was one of them. Kind of like a Bill Clinton but with class and respect for his wife. Because his jokes were like their jokes, because he was cool, even the hippies in Austin liked Bush. And since he had their ear, he could also challenge them to think.
Can you imagine? Take the hippies for example — by which I mean the Howard Dean left. These folks are the heirs of the European and American leftists who, during the Spanish Civil War, went to Spain to fight the rise of a fascist dictatorship. Their slogans (“Attack Hitler Now” and “Fascism Means War”) are now long forgotten. These same people now think that fighting fascism is a terrible crime. But what do they really think? Do they regret their intervention in the Spanish Civil War — their finest hour? Do they think that fighting fascism was a mistake because war is bad even in the defense of life and liberty? Do they now think that dictatorships are o.k. as long as there is stability? (Michael Moore clearly thinks that, if little else). So … a little dose of police state and loss of liberty is fine, so long as there is general security? Is that what they think?
Really, the opposition to Bush is ensnared in so many ridiculous contradictions, that the President would do well, rather than proclaiming that he “understands them” to admit that it is impossible to understand them at all. He should repeat back to them, in succinct form, what they are saying, and encourage them to be a little more thoughtful and consistent. In a reasoned dialogue, people agree on lots of things. But to have that, the President needs to go beyond the articulation of his position, and learn to articulate and criticize the positions of his opposition. It might feel less presidential to duke it out with the talking heads, to engage in a long back-and-forth with other public figures, but that is how you communicate politics in America.