The White House is, quite obviously, getting back into campaign mode. This is a good thing for Democrats, because it means putting the last spadeful of dirt on the carcass of President Obama's hopes of bipartisanship in Washington during his term of office. But while Obama has recently begun to make the case to voters why electing Democrats this November is a good idea, Vice President Joe Biden has apparently been doing a much better job in terms of framing the debate on Democratic terms. Which means the smartest thing Obama could do right now is to send the Vice President out in front of the media and in front of campaign events to make the case a lot more strongly than Obama could (or should). In other words: more Biden, please.
Obama, being president of everyone, walks a fine line between being inclusive of all opinions and promoting his own party's ideals. He's always going to annoy somebody, whether on his left (when he talks bipartisanship) or on his right (when he dabbles in partisanship). And one gets the impression that bipartisanship is not just a political tactic or ploy with Obama, it is instead a concept he believes in at the core of his being. Meaning that setting it aside is not easy for him to do. Obama has demonstrated, over the past year and a half, that he clings to the idea of bipartisanship long after it is quite obvious that Republicans have no intention of working with him at all, and are instead deeply committed to his political failure. This, it should be pointed out, was a surprise to almost nobody -- except, perhaps, Obama himself.
So even when Obama does get a little partisan, you sense that he (or his speechwriting team) is always holding back a bit. This is shown most dramatically by his almost near-refusal to use the word "Republican" when defining his opposition. This is a basic failure of politics, because (just like in advertising) one of the bedrock rules is "define your brand in the best possible light, and define your competition in the worst possible light." By not even naming his opponents, Obama refuses again and again to reinforce this basic political message in voters' minds.
Today, Obama finally did use the word, in talking about the Senate voting tomorrow to extend unemployment benefits (a vote Obama is all but sure to win). Some pundits have criticized Obama for not getting engaged on this issue earlier, but (timing aside) Obama's remarks today were pretty good. Here's an excerpt (his full remarks are quite short, and are worth reading), which followed Obama introducing three people who would be directly affected by an extension of unemployment benefits (Jim Chukalas, Leslie Macko, and Denise Gibson):
And for a long time, there's been a tradition -- under both Democratic and Republican presidents -- to offer relief to the unemployed. That was certainly the case under my predecessor, when Republican senators voted several times to extend emergency unemployment benefits. But right now, these benefits -- benefits that are often the person's sole source of income while they're looking for work -- are in jeopardy.
And I have to say, after years of championing policies that turned a record surplus into a massive deficit, the same people who didn't have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn't offer relief to middle-class Americans like Jim or Leslie or Denise, who really need help.
Over the past few weeks, a majority of senators have tried -- not once, not twice, but three times -- to extend emergency relief on a temporary basis. Each time, a partisan minority in the Senate has used parliamentary maneuvers to block a vote, denying millions of people who are out of work much-needed relief. These leaders in the Senate who are advancing a misguided notion that emergency relief somehow discourages people from looking for a job should talk to these folks.
That attitude, I think, reflects a lack of faith in the American people, because the Americans I hear from in letters and meet... in town hall meetings -- Americans like Leslie and Jim and Denise -- they're not looking for a handout. They desperately want to work. Just right now they can't find a job. These are honest, decent, hardworking folks who've fallen on hard times through no fault of their own, and who have nowhere else to turn except unemployment benefits, and who need emergency relief to help them weather this economic storm.
Now, tomorrow we will have another chance to offer them that relief, to do right by not just Jim and Leslie and Denise, but all the Americans who need a helping hand right now -- and I hope we seize it. It's time to stop holding workers laid off in this recession hostage to Washington politics. It's time to do what's right -- not for the next election but for the middle class. We've got to stop blocking emergency relief for Americans who are out of work. We've got to extend unemployment insurance. We need to pass those tax cuts for small businesses and the lending for small businesses.
Now, this is significant not only because the language is stronger than we've heard for a while, but also because the word "Republican" actually appears. But after this paragraph, there are easily three or four other places in which the word "Republican" is replaced with a euphemism, such as "these leaders in the Senate." And the closing paragraph in the speech is actually a call for bipartisan support for this vote, which simply is not going to happen.
Obama wants to retain his moral and political high ground, in other words. He doesn't want to be too harsh on Republican senators, and wants to be seen still holding the hand of bipartisanship out to them. This is understandable, since (as I mentioned) he is the president of everyone, not just his supporters.
Vice presidents, however, are supposed to be attack dogs. Picture Dick Cheney in your mind's eye for about three-tenths of a second, if you have any doubts that this is the traditional role of the number two guy.
Vice President Joe Biden also recently gave a speech. It was a partisan affair, and not official White House remarks, so it's really unfair to compare his words with Obama's side-by-side here, I realize (because it really is apples and oranges). Also, I apologize for not having a full transcript to link to (if anyone has such a link, please post it in the comments). Biden spoke recently at a Jackson Day fundraiser for Democrats in Tennessee, along with other Democratic luminaries such as Al Gore. Here are some quotes from his speech (although these separate quotes may not be in the exact order Biden spoke, as without a transcript it is impossible to verify -- these quotes came from an AP article and a local article from Tennessee Report):
"[Democrats in the upcoming elections face] a recalcitrant Republican Party that is dominated by a group that ... have not shown any instinct to offer any real alternative to anything we're doing."
"Repeal and Repeat: Repeal everything positive done, and repeat the polices of the previous eight years of the Bush administration."
"Now, Republicans are claiming to be worried about spending and debt ... Republicans moralizing about deficits is a like an arsonist moralizing about fire safety."
"These guys have zero credibility. They put trillions of dollars on our kids' credit cards."
"[The Bush administration] gave us a Ponzi scheme masquerading as a vision."
"Throughout the Bush administration, they decided to let Wall Street be the cowboys of the East. Wall Street made outrageous profits, enticing people with mortgages they couldn't afford, with no down payments, teaser interest rates, forcing millions of Americans to face foreclosure on their homes."
"Next week, President Obama will sign a bill ending the outrageous practices taking place on Wall Street in the last eight years, and we did it with virtually no Republican help."
"Let's get the facts straight. We were a nation on the verge of a depression, and we had a foreign policy that consisted of a simple proposition: Either you're with us or against us, led by a group of neoconservatives who have been wrong on virtually every issue."
The AP article went on to report:
Biden urged Tennessee voters to elect more Democrats to Congress to keep the president's agenda on track. He cited examples of drawing down combat troops in Iraq from 140,000 to 50,000 this summer and the health care and financial overhauls passed by Congress.
All of this, I have to say, is much more like it. "Repeal and repeat," in particular, is excellent. Short and snappy, and memorably alliterative to boot. Both words imply moving backward, not forward. Maybe work the word "retreat" in the extended remarks, just to cement the image.
The only problem with Biden's speech is that Biden casts a shorter shadow in the media than Obama, especially when giving speeches at party-insider events. But if Biden is deployed on a more widespread basis (appearing on a few Sunday morning talk shows, or other media interviews) and can still bring to life some Democratic fire to back up Obama's more tepid criticisms of Republicans, it could do the Democrats a world of good right about now.
Obama, to his credit, is managing to paint a picture for voters of what Democrats want to do and what Republicans want to keep them from doing. He used an old standard of politics (introducing folks personally affected) and tied what Democrats want to do politically into a larger narrative. This is refreshing to see, since Obama himself has stumbled quite badly in this regard in the past (see: healthcare debate). Bring it down to the personal level, and your audience can relate to the story much better. Which Obama did accomplish in his unemployment remarks, without slipping into being maudlin about it.
But Biden's remarks are an even bigger breath of fresh, partisan air into the campaign season. Democrats, as always, have a choice in the upcoming campaign. They can try to convince voters that their ideas are good ones, and their opponents' ideas are either non-existent, consist solely of saying "no," or are hideously bad ideas to begin with. This is called "politics." Democrats' alternative choice is to cower in a corner, allow the Republicans to define the entire debate and the entire campaign, and play reflexive defense for the next four months.
As any casual observer of politics can see, the choice of fighting back and standing up for what you believe is right is quite obviously the better one. And, so far, Vice President Joe Biden has done the best job of defining exactly how Democrats should do this. Since he's not president himself, he is much more free to put things in explicitly partisan terms than his boss. And he seems to be doing a rip-snorting good job of doing so.
So I call on Democratic election strategists, from the Oval Office on down, to realize that they've got a political asset who needs a lot higher media profile in the next month or so. Get the vice president booked on all the wonky talk shows (who is going to turn down the vice president, after all, if he asks to be on your show?). Get him in front of some campaign events, quickly. Get the media to follow him around, just in case he says something worth making a soundbite out of for that evening's news.
In other words, please -- whoever is in control of such things for the Democratic Party -- please can we have more Joe Biden in the next few weeks? Pretty please?
[Program Note: This will be my last "live" column until next Monday. I will be attending Netroots Nation in Las Vegas this week, and will be running a few choice repeat columns for the remainder of the week. Being a contrarian, I will not be attempting to "liveblog" the convention in any way whatsoever -- indeed, if I don't touch a computer until I get back, that'll be fine with me. Hrrmph. In any case, enjoy the encore presentation of earlier columns for the next four days, and I'll see you again back here next Monday, as usual.]
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