Last Monday, I predicted that the combination of an unfavorable political environment for Democrats and the downward trend in President Obama's approval ratings will spur the media to create elaborate narratives about how Obama is not "connecting" with the American people.
Thanks to the special election in Massachusetts, those narratives have already arrived, and they're just as silly as I expected. John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, compiles the evidence, which he correctly calls "primitive magical thinking about what presidents can do if they only have just the right message or right tone."
The reality is that presidential messages tend to work in favorable political environments (i.e. strong economies) and not work in unfavorable environments (i.e. weak economies). Consider the example of Bill Clinton, who struggled early in his first term and was portrayed as failing to communicate with the American people. But when the economy boomed, he became popular and easily won reelection. Not surprisingly, during this period, he was seen as a very effective communicator. Both the press and Clinton administration officials tend to attribute the 1996 victory to various tactical choices (moving to the center, running early ads against Bob Dole, etc.), but as Matthew Yglesias notes Clinton's "success is easily explained in terms of the economic expansion."
Or consider Ronald Reagan. He's remembered as the so-called "Great Communicator," but that's after the economy picked up late in his first term and he won a landslide victory over Walter Mondale. However, Reagan was not always viewed that way -- he suffered through a recession early in his term that damaged his political standing (his approval trajectory was very similar to Obama's). The political scientist Jonathan Bernstein reviewed press accounts of Reagan from January 1982, and concluded that "Reagan's manner [was portrayed as moving] from amiable and clear on the big picture to clueless and oblivious to the important details of governing -- and indifferent to suffering -- when things were going bad."
The larger point is, as Bernstein notes, that "character traits are perceived by the press in light of how the president is doing in the polls and in Washington, not the other way around." In other words, the perception that Obama isn't "connecting" is a symptom of his declining political status, not the cause.