President Barack Obama gave a wowser of a speech today. In it, he signaled that he's completely over his obsession with chasing the nonexistent pipe dream of bipartisanship from Republicans. Obama dove into the 2010 election season fray with this speech and appeared much more like the "Candidate Obama" that so many of his supporters have been missing for so long. In a speech that was touted as an announcement of a legislative package to get the economy moving faster, Obama not only rolled out his economic ideas, but also did a better job of defining the Democratic narrative than he's done in quite a while.
This is exactly what Obama needed to do, and what Democratic political analysts have been calling on him to do. It really was a good speech all the way around, where Obama not only strongly stood up for his policy ideas, but also defined both his position and his opponents' position by including them in a larger narrative about what his party stands for and why their values are superior to the Republicans'.
While the feistiness towards congressional Republicans in general (and House Minority Leader John Boehner in particular) will doubtlessly be what the inside-the-Beltway punditocracy focuses on, Obama's larger narrative is the more important aspect, I believe, that many may miss. While the media, if past performance is any indication, will zero in on one or two soundbites, Obama will likely be able to get the full spectrum of his narrative across to the public much more directly in the press conference he's scheduled for this Friday.
Obama's speech today not only signaled that he's moved beyond the lost cause (at least with the current Congress) of bipartisan cooperation, but also that he's realized that the only way Democrats are going to have a prayer of closing the "enthusiasm gap" this November is to get his own base a little enthused. Which can indeed happen, if other Democrats begin using the same basic narrative Obama outlined today.
Putting aside the political implications of his economic policy proposals (which will have to remain a subject for another day, worthy of a longer discussion than can be managed here), I'd just like to highlight a few passages from Obama's speech. Whittling his speech down was tough to do, because you could pretty much pick paragraphs out of the speech at random to make the same points -- a mark of how consistently good a speech it was. The speech was a long one, lasting more than 45 minutes, but I strongly encourage everyone to read the entire transcript to get the full impact, or watch the whole thing. It really is that good.
I haven't even excerpted the feistiest (or the most rousing) parts of Obama's speech. Instead, I selected the bits that show that the Obama White House is beginning to take a little more seriously the advice of lefty speechifying experts such as Drew Westen and George Lakoff -- who have been saying for a long time now: You have to tell a story. You have to provide a narrative, and by doing so, give voice to a values system that voters can relate to. Then use this values system as a bedrock to build your policy proposals on, keeping them starkly different from your opponents' values.
President Obama, very early on in the speech, begins to draw the difference between himself and his opponents, and defines these differences in terms of such a values system.
I ran for president because for much of the last decade, a very specific governing philosophy had reigned about how America should work: Cut taxes, especially for millionaires and billionaires. Cut regulations for special interests. Cut trade deals even if they didn't benefit our workers. Cut back on investments in our people and in our future -- in education and clean energy, in research and technology. The idea was that if we just had blind faith in the market, if we let corporations play by their own rules, if we left everyone else to fend for themselves that America would grow and America would prosper.
Obama goes on to say that this gave a temporary boost, but in the long haul has served to decimate America's middle class. He then pivots to his own family's personal story, and how the G.I. Bill and the F.H.A. allowed his grandparents to prosper and succeed, and then describes the America that created such things:
It was an America where you didn't buy things you couldn't afford; where we didn't just think about today -- we thought about tomorrow. An America that took pride in the goods that we made, not just the things we consumed. An America where a rising tide really did lift all boats, from the company CEO to the guy on the assembly line.
That's the America I believe in.
Obama then turns his attention to the upcoming election, and frames the choice voters are going to be making, again pointing out the differences in his vision and the Republicans' agenda:
And so people are frustrated and they're angry and they're anxious about the future. I understand that. I also understand that in a political campaign, the easiest thing for the other side to do is to ride this fear and anger all the way to Election Day.
That's what's happening right now. A few weeks ago, the Republican leader of the House came here to Cleveland and offered his party's answer to our economic challenges. Now, it would be one thing if he had admitted his party's mistakes during the eight years that they were in power, if they had gone off for a while and meditated, and come back and offered a credible new approach to solving our country's problems.
But that's not what happened. There were no new policies from Mr. Boehner. There were no new ideas. There was just the same philosophy that we had already tried during the decade that they were in power -- the same philosophy that led to this mess in the first place: Cut more taxes for millionaires and cut more rules for corporations.
Instead of coming together like past generations did to build a better country for our children and grandchildren, their argument is that we should let insurance companies go back to denying care for folks who are sick, or let credit card companies go back to raising rates without any reason. Instead of setting our sights higher, they're asking us to settle for a status quo of stagnant growth and eroding competitiveness and a shrinking middle class.
Cleveland, that is not the America I know. That is not the America we believe in.
A lot has changed since I came here in those final days of the last election, but what hasn't is the choice facing this country. It's still fear versus hope; the past versus the future. It's still a choice between sliding backward and moving forward. That's what this election is about. That's the choice you will face in November.
Obama then begins to lay out the Democrats' vision for the future, in stark contrast:
That means making sure corporations live up to their responsibilities to treat consumers fairly and play by the same rules as everyone else. Their responsibility is to look out for their workers, as well as their shareholders, and create jobs here at home.
And that means providing a hand-up for middle-class families -- so that if they work hard and meet their responsibilities, they can afford to raise their children, and send them to college, see a doctor when they get sick, retire with dignity and respect.
That's what we Democrats believe in -- a vibrant free market, but one that works for everybody. That's our vision. That's our vision for a stronger economy and a growing middle class. And that's the difference between what we and Republicans in Congress are offering the American people right now.
The president then frames the upcoming "tax the millionaires" debate, again in sharply contrasting terms:
With all the other budgetary pressures we have -- with all the Republicans' talk about wanting to shrink the deficit -- they would have us borrow $700 billion over the next 10 years to give a tax cut of about $100,000 each to folks who are already millionaires. And keep in mind wealthy Americans are just about the only folks who saw their incomes rise when Republicans were in charge. And these are the folks who are less likely to spend the money -- which is why economists don't think tax breaks for the wealthy would do much to boost the economy.
So let me be clear to Mr. Boehner and everybody else: We should not hold middle-class tax cuts hostage any longer. We are ready, this week, if they want, to give tax cuts to every American making $250,000 or less. That's 98-97 percent of Americans. Now, for any income over this amount, the tax rates would just go back to what they were under President Clinton.
This isn't to punish folks who are better off -- God bless them. It's because we can't afford the $700 billion price tag. And for those who claim that our approach would somehow be bad for growth and bad for small businesses, let me remind you that with those tax rates in place, under President Clinton, this country created 22 million jobs and raised incomes and had the largest surplus in our history.
In fact, if the Republican leadership in Congress really wants to help small businesses, they'll stop using legislative maneuvers to block an up or down vote on a small business jobs bill that's before the Senate right now. Right now. This is a bill that would do two things. It would cut taxes for small businesses and make loans more available for small businesses. It is fully paid for, won't add to the deficit. And it was written by Democrats and Republicans. And yet, the other party continues to block this jobs bill -- a delay that small business owners have said is actually leading them to put off hiring.
Look, I recognize that most of the Republicans in Congress have said no to just about every policy I've proposed since taking office. I realize in some cases that there are genuine philosophical differences. But on issues like this one -- a tax cut for small businesses supported by the Chamber of Commerce -- the only reason they're holding this up is politics, pure and simple. They're making the same calculation they made just before my inauguration: If I fail, they win. Well, they might think that this will get them to where they want to go in November, but it won't get our country going where it needs to go in the long run. It won't get us there.
Obama then brings it all home in a rousing finish:
This country is emerging from an incredibly difficult period in its history -- an era of irresponsibility that stretched from Wall Street to Washington, and had a devastating effect on a lot of people. We have started turning the corner on that era. But part of moving forward is returning to the time-honored values that built this country: hard work and self-reliance; responsibility for ourselves, but also responsibility for one another. It's about moving from an attitude that said "What's in it for me?" to one that asks, "What's best for America? What's best for all our workers? What's best for all of our businesses? What's best for all of our children?"
These values are not Democratic or Republican. They are not conservative or liberal values. They are American values. As Democrats, we take pride in what our party has accomplished over the last century: Social Security and the minimum wage; the G.I. Bill and Medicare; civil rights and worker's rights and women's rights. But we also recognize that throughout our history, there has been a noble Republican vision as well, of what this country can be. It was the vision of Abraham Lincoln, who set up the first land grant colleges and launched the transcontinental railroad; the vision of Teddy Roosevelt, who used the power of government to break up monopolies; the vision of Dwight Eisenhower, who helped build the Interstate Highway System. And, yes, the vision of Ronald Reagan, who despite his aversion to government, was willing to help save Social Security for future generations -- working with Democrats.
These were serious leaders for serious times. They were great politicians, but they didn't spend all their time playing games or scoring points. They didn't always prey on people's fears and anxieties. They made mistakes, but they did what they thought was in the best interests of their country and its people.
And that's what the American people expect of us today -- Democrats, independents, and Republicans. That's the debate they deserve. That's the leadership we owe them.
I know that folks are worried about the future. I know there's still a lot of hurt out here. And when times are tough, I know it can be tempting to give in to cynicism and fear and doubt and division -- and just settle our sights a little bit lower, settle for something a little bit less. But that's not who we are, Ohio. Those are not the values that built this country.
We are here today because in the worst of times, the people who came before us brought out the best in America. Because our parents and our grandparents and our great-grandparents were willing to work and sacrifice for us. They were willing to take great risks, and face great hardship, and reach for a future that would give us the chance at a better life. They knew that this country is greater than the sum of its parts -- that America is not about the ambitions of any one individual, but the aspirations of an entire people, an entire nation.
That's who we are. That is our legacy. And I'm convinced that if we're willing to summon those values today, and if we're willing to choose hope over fear, and choose the future over the past, and come together once more around the great project of national renewal, then we will restore our economy and rebuild our middle class and reclaim the American Dream for the next generation.
As I said, those are just a few excerpts. The rest of the speech is in a similar vein, which is why it is worth reading in full.
Now, cynical Democrats might at this point be excused for thinking along the lines of: "Too little, too late." President Obama has obviously decided that bipartisanship -- especially in an election season -- is just not going to happen. Which, again, some Democrats might respond to with some version of: "It's about time!"
It may be too late for Obama to do much good for Democrats out on the campaign trail. But then again, it may not be too late. Sure, the polls are looking pretty grim for Democrats right now, but there's a whole two months before the election, and Labor Day is the traditional kickoff to the campaign for a reason -- because there are a lot of Americans who simply don't pay much attention to the political scene during the summer. So the impact of finally seeing a glimmer of "Candidate Obama" speaking out again has yet to be determined.
The real question is whether there is any follow-through by other Democrats. President Obama will lead this effort by giving a press conference this Friday, where he is likely to repeat many of the points he made in this speech. But then it'll be up to Democratic Party leaders and candidates to hammer the points home in the coming weeks. This is accomplished by rejecting the framing of the media's questions, and reminding everyone of the Democratic narrative on the issues, every chance they get in front of the cameras.
If Democrats can capitalize on this message in a big way, it could begin a wave of support for them. If, however, they revert to their default position (see: herding cats) of not being able to explain their own positions very well, then the gloom-and-doom pundits may prove to be right and Democrats will be swept out of power in a few months.
President Obama, by throwing a final shovelful of dirt on the grave of his bipartisan obsession, has created an opening for Democratic candidates. It remains to be seen whether they can successfully follow his lead out on the campaign trail, or not.
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