President Barack Obama opened his re-election campaign last night with a wowzer of a speech to a joint session of Congress. But we'll get to that in detail in a minute. First, we must mark an important anniversary this week.
I am speaking, of course, of the fact that 45 years ago last night, the first Star Trek episode aired. Titled "The Man Trap," it introduced America to the Enterprise, to Captain Kirk, and to all the other loveable characters and storylines which have now become part of our collective psyche (and, as a bonus, continue to this day to give the Grammar Police the heebie-jeebies every time they hear the split infinitive "...to boldly go where no man has gone before...").
What's that? There's another anniversary this week, you say? I hadn't noticed.
Of course, I am being facetious here. The ten-year mark for the tragedy of 9/11 has been a weeklong media event, and I fully expect this Sunday's political shows to be so crammed full of schmaltz as to be unwatchable. This isn't a commentary on the event itself, rather on the way the media has sensationalized the heck out of it -- for every advertising dollar they can wrest from this important anniversary. Perhaps this is just early-onset curmudgeonality in me, but I have to say I'm already pretty sick of watching the collective media swoon.
I realize I'm supposed to tell "my 9/11 story" here, along with everyone else. My story isn't all that exciting, really, it's more quietly observational. Which is why it's barely worth telling at all. In September, 2001, I had planned a camping trip in the Southwest. It was eerie to see the brilliant night sky (you simply haven't seen the stars until you've seen them from the high desert with no ground light around for 50 miles in any direction...) with absolutely no airplanes crossing it whatsoever. We could even make out satellites, due to the lack of other moving objects in the sky (yes, at dusk it is possible to see satellites go overhead, if the conditions are right).
But what was even more sobering than the empty skies at night was what we saw in Mojave, California. Mojave is a small town on the edge of the desert of the same name. Today, you barely even notice the town, because they've been improving the road across the desert for decades, and they have now built a freeway bypass that avoids the actual town of Mojave altogether. Back then, though, you had to drive down their main street, make a left turn, and head out across the desert. As you left town, the road ran along the edge of a huge airport -- far bigger than such a small town should normally have. This airport is used mostly as a training facility for commercial pilots. As with a teenager in an empty parking lot learning the mysteries of a clutch and gears, the safest place to learn how to take off and land a jumbo jet is out in the middle of nowhere, with almost nothing to hit if you mess up.
Normally, this airport is almost empty. There are a few dozen jets, mostly older training planes, and a whole lot of empty space and runways. We drove by Mojave a day or two after 9/11, when every plane in America was grounded. And I have never seen so many airplanes in one place in my entire life. Mojave was obviously being used as a gigantic parking lot for hundreds and hundreds of planes. Think about it -- if you ground every plane in the country, you've got to have somewhere to put them all. And Mojave airport fit the bill perfectly. Row upon row of every type jet imaginable, stretching off to eternity in the triple-digit heat, bearing silent witness to the magnitude of what our country had just experienced.
As I said, as 9/11 stories go, this isn't all that meaningful. Seeing hundreds of jumbo jets parked in the middle of nowhere is pretty minor compared to what a lot of other folks were going through at the time. But it was eerie, and it's the only story I've got, so it'll have to do.
Enough of that, though -- there's plenty of other (and better) stories around, so let's just move along to the awards, and then to a special edition of this week's talking points.
President Barack Obama, after more than two years in office, stumbled across something in a White House closet a month or so ago. "What's this?" the president wondered, and then he stood up and took a look at what he had tripped over. It was the famed "Bully Pulpit" of yore! Since it came with no instructions, he thought he'd just try it out for a spin and see what happened. He called on Americans to contact their Congressmen in the midst of the debt ceiling battle, and they responded in droves! The switchboards at the Capitol lit up, the email servers began crashing from the overload, and the president thought to himself, "It actually worked! This thing is great!"
Last night, he pounded the Bully Pulpit like he's never done before in his presidency. He spoke not to the Congress assembled in front of him, but directly to the American people. He didn't mince words. This was not a "professorial" address. In fact, he even looked a bit pissed off at times during the speech. Fittingly, nature provided a dramatic backdrop -- the exterior shots of the Capitol dome showed thunder and lightning crashing all around. It was, indeed, a Bully Pulpit speech.
The question of whether it'll do any good or not is still an open one, of course. The reviews aren't all in yet, because no matter what inside-the-Beltway pundits thought of Obama's performance, the American people haven't weighed in yet with their reaction to his speech. Until they do, it's impossible to say what impact Obama's speech will have.
But he certainly gave it his all. Not being an economist, I can't personally say whether his jobs plan is good, bad, excellent, or mediocre. Actually, that puts me one up on the real economists, because whatever pronouncements they make on it are quite likely to be wrong (economists don't have a great track record of predicting the future, in reality). I'm at least admitting I don't know what the future will bring, which is guaranteed to not embarrass me later, unlike the expert economists weighing in right now. Ahem.
But as an average American, and as a political observer, I have to say it certainly sounded good. With a minor exception here and there, while watching the speech I kept saying to myself "that sounds like a good idea" -- which is one (admittedly subjective) measure of the speech's effect. On the scale of reasonableness, Obama's speech got very high marks indeed. The president has always seemed to struggle -- since he got elected -- with explaining his proposals in terms that the average Joe or Jane can relate to (something Bill Clinton is the undoubted master at doing). Last night, Obama broke through and did exactly that. Although the speech was, in format, a typical "laundry list" of ideas and programs, it never devolved into inducing glassy-eyed stares from the audience. His framing of the problems into who we are as Americans and what we stand for as a country was downright brilliant, and each individual idea was hammered home again and again with exhortations to "pass this bill -- right now." It truly was a superb speech, just as a speech. But we'll get to all of that in a moment.
Politically, the speech sets up what the White House hopes is a win-win situation for Obama. Either the Republicans act on his proposal right away, or they don't. If they do, they will hand Obama a big political victory right before election season. If they don't, then they have given Obama and every other Democrat an enormous issue to campaign on -- the "Party Of No" label will stick to Republicans like glue throughout the next fourteen months.
I should note here that I cannot take credit for the title of this column -- I believe it was Chris Matthews who came up with "Give 'em Hell, Barry!" after the speech. Look for many, many more comparisons to Harry S Truman as the campaign progresses, and his campaign against his own "Do-Nothing Congress." This is the model Obama is going to have to use, and it can indeed work.
Obama's speech last night was important in one other way as well -- because it could go a long way towards redefining the interaction between Congress and the White House. This time, Obama is leading. He's the one putting out a plan -- with details. The Republicans now find themselves playing defense. If the American public responds, they could be on defense for quite a while over the issue, in fact. In all the other big legislative fights Obama has had yet as president, his normal modus operandi has been to issue vague goals, and then sit back and let Congress squabble over the details, while occasionally joining in during closed-door dealmaking meetings. This has produced results (healthcare reform, Wall Street reform), but the tactic hasn't done Obama much good with the public. With the American Jobs Act, Obama has turned the tables. He's now the one leading with a detailed plan. Republicans will haggle over each and every piece of it, but Obama can stand firm on any piece he chooses. Because Obama will be defending his own plan, instead of accepting Congress', he will (hopefully) be much more likely to draw lines in the sand and refuse to jettison certain parts of it. If it works out, this could renew Obama's entire presidency.
Of course, as I said, there are no guarantees. But it was interesting to note that Republicans didn't immediately try to shoot Obama's plan full of holes. The responses from the Republican leadership (especially over in the House) were a lot more encouraging than expected. Perhaps they've actually been listening to the people in those town hall meetings, one cannot help but wonder. This may, however, wear off quickly -- especially as the 2012 campaign heats up further.
Whether it works or not, though, Obama had little to lose last night by being as forceful as possible. If Republicans balk, he's got a great campaign issue to run on. If Republicans work with him, he can claim he has "changed Washington." Either way, it is the start of Barack Obama's 2012 campaign -- and it's a lot better start than many were willing to predict mere days ago.
For that, President Obama is our unquestioned Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award winner this week. Let's keep this up, Mister President. Give 'em Hell, Barry!
[Congratulate President Barack Obama on the White House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts. Or, even better, contact your members of Congress and let them know you support the president's plan.]
This one is a little obscure, so it'll be quick.
This week's winner of the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award is the former speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Salvatore DiMasi. He was tried and convicted earlier of conspiracy to defraud the federal government, extortion, wire fraud, and mail fraud. He was just sentenced to eight years in prison as a result (the Boston Herald has the full story, if you're interested). The past three speakers of the Massachusetts House have now been federally indicted, which puts the Bay State up there with Illinois (with two former governors doing jail time) in the corruption sweepstakes.
Although not a national figure, Sal DiMasi was without doubt the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week last week.
[Former Speaker Salvatore DiMasi has left his public office, so there is currently no public contact information available for him, sorry.]
Volume 180 (9/9/11)
President Obama's speech was such a good one, that we're just going to offer up seven excerpts from the full text of it, as advice for how Democrats should be talking in the coming weeks. Because Obama can't do this alone -- he's got to have an army of Democratic officeholders (and candidates for office) behind him during the entire election season. Helping the jobless is about as perfect a political issue as you can imagine, because its need is so self-evident. How can anyone be "against" jobless help?
Obama has laid out the skeleton of the entire campaign, if Democrats would just pick up the ball and run with it. The American Jobs Act is a catchy title, and it needs repeating as often as possible, until everyone knows what it is and what it means.
There is one bonus talking point I'll offer this week, which wasn't in Obama's speech, but which vitally needs to be repeated by Democrats everywhere, starting right now. This is actually borrowing the tactic from the Republicans (when they were the "out" party, of course) -- calling for an "up-or-down vote" in both houses of Congress. This should be the first response any Democrat gives to any question about anything, over the course of the next few weeks.
"So, Senator, how do you feel about Star Trek's big anniversary?"
"Star Trek was always known for boldly going where no man had gone before, and in that same spirit I would like to call upon Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House John Boehner to immediately allow an up-or-down vote on President Obama's American Jobs Act in both the Senate and the House next week. We are in a crisis, and we're can't just beam our way out of it -- we have to act like Captain Kirk and beat down this crisis with both fists, while seducing the beautiful free market to provide us with jobs. This can only happen with an up-or-down vote. Let's show the American people where we stand. Let's have the courage to boldly get the American Jobs Act to an up-or-down vote. There is simply no reason why we can't do this within a week's time. We must act, right now, to create a better future for us all."
See? It's easy. Just insert "up-or-down vote" about four times in your answer, and leaven with "American Jobs Act" and "floor vote" as necessary. This stuff ain't dilithium-crystal warp-drive science or anything.
Ahem. Let's get on with Obama's talking points for all Democrats to start memorizing for future use, shall we?
The American Jobs Act
Use the full name of the bill, every single time. This is Advertising 101, folks. Repeat, repeat, repeat. The American Jobs Act. Practice it in front of a mirror. Ban your staff to refer to it in any other way, so everyone gets used to it. The American Jobs Act.
I am sending this Congress a plan that you should pass right away. It's called the American Jobs Act. There should be nothing controversial about this piece of legislation. Everything in here is the kind of proposal that's been supported by both Democrats and Republicans -- including many who sit here tonight. And everything in this bill will be paid for. Everything.
The purpose of the American Jobs Act is simple: to put more people back to work and more money in the pockets of those who are working. It will create more jobs for construction workers, more jobs for teachers, more jobs for veterans, and more jobs for long-term unemployed. It will provide -- it will provide a tax break for companies who hire new workers, and it will cut payroll taxes in half for every working American and every small business. It will provide a jolt to an economy that has stalled, and give companies confidence that if they invest and if they hire, there will be customers for their products and services. You should pass this jobs plan right away.
Pass this jobs bill -- right away
This one I'll actually provide my own talking point, since the actual quotation is merely a short phrase which the president repeated in his speech dozens of times, in one form or another. Democrats need to have Obama's back on this one, and keep the pressure up. This is the only time when talking point number one can be ignored -- when directly quoting the president's speech.
"As the president called upon us to do, we need to pass the American Jobs Act right away. There is no need for months of endless negotiations just to stall and play politics with people's lives. There is no need to bring the economy screeching to a halt just to make a political point in an election season. There is merely the need to pass this jobs bill. The Republicans swept into office saying they were, quote, listening to the American people, unquote. Well, the American people are clearly saying 'pass this jobs bill.' We need to pass the American Jobs Act, and we need to do it right away, as the president asked us to and as our country is demanding we do."
Us versus the rest of the world
Obama used this theme over and over. In fact, he's always been a proponent of this political stance, but it stands out starkly in this speech -- we're in a competition with the rest of the world. We're America, and we want to be Number One. So let's do it!
In a speech today in Richmond, Virginia, the crowd actually burst into a spontaneous chant of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" -- so let's show the Republicans we can be just as big on "American exceptionalism" when the subject is something other than our military might.
Pass this jobs bill, and we can put people to work rebuilding America. Everyone here knows we have badly decaying roads and bridges all over the country. Our highways are clogged with traffic. Our skies are the most congested in the world. It's an outrage.
Building a world-class transportation system is part of what made us a economic superpower. And now we're going to sit back and watch China build newer airports and faster railroads? At a time when millions of unemployed construction workers could build them right here in America?
. . .
Pass this jobs bill, and thousands of teachers in every state will go back to work. These are the men and women charged with preparing our children for a world where the competition has never been tougher. But while they're adding teachers in places like South Korea, we're laying them off in droves. It's unfair to our kids. It undermines their future and ours. And it has to stop. Pass this bill, and put our teachers back in the classroom where they belong.
. . .
Now, the American Jobs Act answers the urgent need to create jobs right away. But we can't stop there. As I've argued since I ran for this office, we have to look beyond the immediate crisis and start building an economy that lasts into the future -- an economy that creates good, middle-class jobs that pay well and offer security. We now live in a world where technology has made it possible for companies to take their business anywhere. If we want them to start here and stay here and hire here, we have to be able to out-build and out-educate and out-innovate every other country on Earth.
. . .
I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy. We shouldn't be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards. America should be in a race to the top. And I believe we can win that race.
. . .
These are difficult years for our country. But we are Americans. We are tougher than the times we live in, and we are bigger than our politics have been. So let's meet the moment. Let's get to work, and let's show the world once again why the United States of America remains the greatest nation on Earth.
Turn the tables on taxes
This was positively brilliant, because it co-opted the Republican argument so well. Against raising taxes? Then why are you fighting against doing so for the middle class, hmmm?
Pass this jobs bill, and the typical working family will get a $1,500 tax cut next year. Fifteen hundred dollars that would have been taken out of your pocket will go into your pocket. This expands on the tax cut that Democrats and Republicans already passed for this year. If we allow that tax cut to expire -- if we refuse to act -- middle-class families will get hit with a tax increase at the worst possible time. We can't let that happen. I know that some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live. Now is not the time to carve out an exception and raise middle-class taxes, which is why you should pass this bill right away.
Expose the political opportunism
This one was repeated many times in Obama's speech, in many ways. These are mostly Republican ideas. Ever since Obama got into office, Republicans have consistently voted against their own ideas and proposals. There is simply no reason for them to do so except political opportunism. But if nobody points it out, they can get away with it over and over again. Obama started pointing this out, and Democrats need to do the same every chance they can get. "You voted for this when a Republican was in the White House, why are you against it now? The only answer is 'politics' and the American people are sick of it." Point it out!
This idea came from a bill written by a Texas Republican and a Massachusetts Democrat. The idea for a big boost in construction is supported by America's largest business organization and America's largest labor organization. It's the kind of proposal that's been supported in the past by Democrats and Republicans alike. You should pass it right away.
. . .
Every proposal I've laid out tonight is the kind that's been supported by Democrats and Republicans in the past. Every proposal I've laid out tonight will be paid for. And every proposal is designed to meet the urgent needs of our people and our communities.
We can't afford to do both -- it's simple math
One of the best highlights of the speech was Obama turning this one back against the Republicans. It's not a question of spending -- it's a question of what priorities we have, as a nation. It's not class warfare to point out simple math. We can't afford to do everything? Fine, then let's get our priorities straight, shall we?
So we can reduce this deficit, pay down our debt, and pay for this jobs plan in the process. But in order to do this, we have to decide what our priorities are. We have to ask ourselves, "What's the best way to grow the economy and create jobs?"
Should we keep tax loopholes for oil companies? Or should we use that money to give small business owners a tax credit when they hire new workers? Because we can't afford to do both. Should we keep tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires? Or should we put teachers back to work so our kids can graduate ready for college and good jobs? Right now, we can't afford to do both.
This isn't political grandstanding. This isn't class warfare. This is simple math. This is simple math. These are real choices. These are real choices that we've got to make. And I'm pretty sure I know what most Americans would choose. It's not even close. And it's time for us to do what's right for our future.
That's not who we are
I saved the best for last. This is a narrative Democrats should memorize by heart. It is the basic counter-story to the Republican myth of the Horatio-Algerist "pull yourselves up by the bootstraps" version of the American Dream. Democrats have been beaten by this club since about Reagan's time, and they have yet to develop an effective counter-story. Obama went a long ways towards providing exactly that, and Democrats everywhere should take notice. We're in this together. Remind everyone of that, as often as you can.
But what we can't do -- what I will not do -- is let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades. I reject the idea that we need to ask people to choose between their jobs and their safety. I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients. I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy. We shouldn't be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards. America should be in a race to the top. And I believe we can win that race.
In fact, this larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everybody's money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they're on their own -- that's not who we are. That's not the story of America.
Yes, we are rugged individualists. Yes, we are strong and self-reliant. And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and the envy of the world.
But there's always been another thread running throughout our history -- a belief that we're all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.
We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union. Founder of the Republican Party. But in the middle of a civil war, he was also a leader who looked to the future -- a Republican President who mobilized government to build the Transcontinental Railroad, launch the National Academy of Sciences, set up the first land grant colleges. And leaders of both parties have followed the example he set.
Ask yourselves -- where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways, not to build our bridges, our dams, our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the G.I. Bill. Where would we be if they hadn't had that chance?
How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? How many Americans would have suffered as a result?
No single individual built America on their own. We built it together. We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; a nation with responsibilities to ourselves and with responsibilities to one another. And members of Congress, it is time for us to meet our responsibilities.
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