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The Dying Art of Political Explanation

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How wrong is the criticism that says President Obama prefers to explain his policies from a great height or to answer requests for assurance from humble citizens and TV hosts? A middle layer of explanation has certainly been lacking from the start: the effort of persuasion that is neither inspirational nor tactical, where a leader tries to convert people to his side. This is the level at which one must articulate the reasons for a policy, along with the understanding of the public good from which the policy has issued and the historical context that makes it necessary and desirable.

That the administration fell short of that standard of persuasion in the passage of health care is now well known. But if the accounts recently published by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker and by Peter Baker in tomorrow's New York Times Magazine can be believed, the stock-taking at the White House has hardly begun. President Obama continues to think himself a victim of circumstance; and whether the Republicans win a small or a large victory in November, he expects they will come into the next congress more willing to deal with him than ever before. From the Baker profile:

Obama expressed optimism to me that he could make common cause with Republicans after the midterm elections. "It may be that regardless of what happens after this election, they feel more responsible," he said, "either because they didn't do as well as they anticipated, and so the strategy of just saying no to everything and sitting on the sidelines and throwing bombs didn't work for them, or they did reasonably well, in which case the American people are going to be looking to them to offer serious proposals and work with me in a serious way."


I asked if there were any Republicans he trusted enough to work with on economic issues. The first name he came up with was Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who initially agreed to serve as Obama's commerce secretary before changing his mind. But Gregg is retiring. The only other Republican named by Obama was Paul Ryan.

The "optimism" expressed here borders on a sheer opacity of denial.

Meanwhile, in the midterm campaign, the administration has held on to a format of persuasion that works down from sloganeering to local tactics without ever passing through a phase of accessible explanation. Consider the attack on the Chamber of Commerce now being carried forward by the president and his spokesmen. The Chamber of Commerce is an organization for which -- partly because of its name perhaps, and partly because of its history -- many American cherish a vague and half-informed affection. You can attack it, but if you do, the reason ought to be interesting and affecting. The administration has accused the Chamber of Commerce of channeling large amounts of money from foreign investors into Republican campaigns for the House and Senate. They offer no proofs, but are sufficiently confident to repeat the accusations.

The tactic on the face of it looks very strange. It becomes intelligible only when one learns of the underlying concern. Financiers from other countries have an active interest in the Republicans winning the election because they know that the party will use its power to leverage tax breaks, regulative policy, and anti-union politics in a way that eases the exit of big companies from America. Foreign corporate dollars are being used to take American jobs away from Americans. It sounds a little different when you put it that way. The drain will be good for American owners -- those not inhibited by sentimental patriotic feelings -- and bad for American workers. The Republican party and rich Americans who don't care how they get richer will thus acquire a new power and, with it, a dangerous detachment from American life. What is at stake then, in the talk about the Chamber of Commerce, is not only the future of the Democratic party but the fate of American workers. In this case, their interests happen to coincide.

If that is what President Obama is thinking, he should say so. And having neglected the point till now, he should say so now. Without the explanation, the tactic savors of a more than usually transparent cynicism. Rightly explained, it could win some votes and would at least command respect. Chris Matthews (hardly a slack or obtuse observer) brought up the challenge last night: Why don't you say it? It is possible of course that the president, here as on other issues, wants to give the appearance of standing his ground without saying exactly what his ground is. The attack on the Chamber looks like minding the intrusion of "special interests," whereas to raise the threat of jobs departing the United States en masse could be seen as a demagogic appeal to panic and class war. Well, but if you think the war is real, say so. If you prefer to step halfway and no further, it would be better to say nothing. An attack on the Chamber without proof or a process of reasoning to back it has an air of opportunism.

The same tendency to justify from the surface and not trust the public to understand the depth has been visible in President Obama's partial explanations of Afghanistan. A reader of Obama's Wars may learn from its first 50 pages that a major cause of American troubles in Afghanistan is the support of the Taliban by Pakistan. One learns also that a large cause of Pakistan's support for the Taliban is its fear of India. Most Americans know about Afghanistan. Readers who follow the news may know about the Pakistan link to the Taliban. But only those who take the trouble to follow the news in some detail, and from several sources, can know that the conflict really goes back to India/Pakistan. That is why President Obama thinks that U.S. troops cannot leave the region immediately, and why he is convinced success in Afghanistan means nothing if confined to Afghanistan. The twin dangers from Pakistan, of its becoming a permanent residence for international terrorism and losing control of its nuclear weapons to an unaccountable force, will actually be reduced only by a settlement that is regional in scope.

Why has he told none of this to the American public? Why has he practiced as undemocratic an economy of truth as Bush in omitting the word India from most of his comments on the war and never once daring to utter the word Kashmir?

Again as with the Chamber of Commerce, a difficult choice, wrong maybe but defensible, is made to look opportunistic or impenetrable by the omission of all explanation at the middle level. The administration chooses, rather, to deal purely in broad slogans ("our war against al-Qaeda") and local expedients ("zero tolerance for corruption").

If the Obama administration hopes to sponsor further reforms and to defend the policies it chooses, it cannot afford to think its failures the result of "a problem of communication." They are, in some measure, effects of an inability to explain. And the problem starts at the top. Barack Obama has often said that he studies with care the words of Abraham Lincoln; and there is evidence that he has attended closely to some of Lincoln's words. Yet Obama's taste runs to the inspirational moments, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, speeches that tell of the victories Lincoln presided over and won at great cost. Obama would like to give those speeches, but as president he has not yet won victories that would make such speeches plausible or fitting. A more appropriate guide at present may be the Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854): a work of persuasion that explains intelligibly a policy of reform whose effects lie in the future.

Lincoln, in that great speech, explained his policy against the expansion of slavery at just the middle level that says the most: between the broad slogan and the executive detail. He gave a well-defended view of the constitutional context, and a historical survey of the developments that led to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. The result has the virtues of patience, simplicity, and honesty. It pays its listener the compliment of treating him as an equal. The possibility of such an act of civic persuasion seems to have vanished from American politics in the past 30 years. One had hoped President Obama even while arguing for his own policies would assist in a revival of the art of political explanation. Thus far, with the exception of the Cairo speech which had no upshot in practice, he is only the most recent casualty of a distrust of political argument that comes alike from the bottom of our culture and from the top.