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Obama’s challenge: Anger is replacing hope

/ Source: The Associated Press

Thrust into office on the veracity of hope, President Barack Obama is trying to get himself on the right side of a remarkably different national sentiment these days: anger.

Obama's expansive domestic goals are largely the same, but his message is changing, now constructed around a concession that the public is disillusioned and wanting results. If he cannot show people that he understands their frustration and is working to fix it, the risks are real.

All that angst that Obama wants to harness as a force for change — as he did in his campaign — will turn against him. That means eroding public support for his agenda and potentially big losses for his party this year in congressional midterm elections.

So it was telling when Obama offered this take on Republican Scott Brown's Senate win in Massachusetts last month, one that weakened the president's hand: "The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office. People are angry, and they're frustrated."

A new White House talking point was born, and it was hardly hope and change.

On that same day of postelection analysis, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs used some description of anger, frustration or both 12 times to describe what people were feeling, including this one: "That anger is now pointed at us, because we're in charge. Rightly so."

Trying to shift the heat
The Obama response has come in two parts. One is to try to get better about communicating to people that he is fighting to address exactly what angers them. The other is to put the onus on whomever he deems is getting in the way of progress, hoping to shift the heat onto them.

"If you, as a member of the public, do not perceive that leaders understand that you are angry and frustrated, you're not going to listen to what they say next," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a scholar of political communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "Their credibility is gone. And once you've lost that, it's hard to regain it."

And with people fed up about so many things at once — stubbornly high unemployment, partisanship, big government, banker bonuses — Obama's communications challenge is complex.

He must connect to people's bitterness without becoming exactly the person he warns about, politicians who exploit anger. And he has to personally relate to people's wrenching financial losses when his natural style is to speak in a professorial, explanatory way.

Even Obama has lamented a sense of public detachment from all his difficult first-year work, and has said he wants to do an improved job of communicating directly to people.

Examples of the retooled effort abound.

Obama gave a fiery pep talk during an Ohio town hall a few days after his party's big loss in Massachusetts. The next week he mocked news organizations for saying he had shifted to a more populist message. "I've been fighting for working folks my entire adult life," he said.

In his State of the Union speech, Obama was speaking to Democratic and Republican lawmakers, but also, really, to families watching at home, when he offered this I-hear-you-America line: "We all hated the bank bailout. I hated it. You hated it."

‘We'll call them out’
And Obama has gotten more vocal in seeking Republican help — knowing the nation is angry about bickering — but he challenges the opposition party each time. "We'll call them out when they say they want to work with us, and we extend a hand and get a fist in return," he said.

"Fat cat" bankers, lobbyists, insurance companies, the media, even the Supreme Court. Obama has targeted all of them in trying to show people that he is on the regular guy's side.

"It's perhaps a winning strategy in the short term," said David Gergen, a political analyst and former adviser to four presidents. "It will help to align him with those who are frustrated. But it is not a winning strategy over the long haul. You can't run for re-election pointing to all the things that are wrong with the system."

Plenty of tools in his favor
As Obama seeks to capture and channel the nation's frustration, he has plenty of tools in his favor. He is viewed as likable by the public, he is still in just his 13th month in office, his party controls both chambers of Congress and he is seeing the economy start to recover.

Working against him: Expectations. People want improved lives faster. Hope gets harder to sustain for the jobless or for those ever exasperated by the Wall Street bailout.

Obama tried to caution people even in the celebration of his election night in 2008.

"Our climb will be steep," he said then. "We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there."

The this-will-take-time part largely was lost among the throngs clamoring for change.

Detached and cool
Obama also has the tough task of relating to anger without showing much of it. Presidents are supposed to keep their cool. Obama tends to operate that way anyway, which sometimes is cast as advantage, and other times gets him depicted as seeming detached even if he isn't.

"If my poll numbers are low, then I'm cool and cerebral and cold and detached," Obama said of the way people interpret his demeanor. "If my poll numbers are high, well, he's calm and reasoned. So that's the filter through which a lot of this stuff is interpreted."

Don't expect the president to pound the podium just to make a point, Gibbs said.

But do expect him to keep showing, in his own way, that he feels the public's pain.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that two-thirds of people are either dissatisfied by the way the federal government is working or outright angry about it.

And that's a problem Obama now owns.

"The public is not this highly rational, nuanced creature," Jamieson said. "When the public is unhappy, it blames the status quo. And when you're the establishment, the 'change' election moves to the other party."