Obama is back. Just watch the President's relaxed, yet pointed, speech Thursday night at Harlem's Apollo Theater. Regardless of your party affiliation, or whether you personally like Mr. Obama or not, honestly tell me, after watching his performance, whether you think any of the four remaining Republican pretenders has a shot of defeating this President.
My own informal poll of diehard Republican friends (many with lots of money to donate to the right GOP candidate) yields the same conclusion: Barack Obama is going to win a second term, no matter which flawed candidate the Republican Party nominates. The president's Apollo Theater speech --in which he famously performed a deft imitation of Rev. Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" -- tells me the reason why.
Obama has the superior narrative. As any good debater or lawyer knows, story matters. You can have the best evidence, best arguments, best case, but in order to win the hearts and minds of a judge (or, in this case, a voter), you need a compelling narrative that knits the arguments and evidence of your case together.
The Republicans think they have that narrative. Their story is that the previous Republican administration screwed up. That George W. Bush put us in unprecedented debt by adopting Democratic ideas like prescription drug benefits, but that Obama made the debt worse via ObamaCare, auto company bailouts, and a failed stimulus plan. Their answer to their loss in 2008 has not been to revisit those aspects of Republican theology that have empirically failed, but, rather, to double down on that theology.
They invoke an old and familiar story. But it's not a fresh story.
Campaigning on tax cuts for all, deregulation, domestic fossil fuel exploration, privatization of government services and huge increases in defense expenditures is straight from the Reagan playbook. That was 1980. It was an optimistic domestic narrative when the sitting president, Jimmy Carter, complained of an American "malaise." It was a strong foreign policy vision when compared to the desultory secular Marxism of a failing USSR.
Today, that GOP vision smells like stale bread. The tropes are so tired that even if the self-proclaimed, self-enamored champion of those ideas, Newt "Open Marriage" Gingrich, cannot consistently abide them. Ditto for the Massachusetts Mormon, who is a classic Rockefeller Republican at heart, but can't come out of his faux conservative straitjacket and admit it. Why? Because he would be seen as John McCain Part Deux, and would lose the GOP nomination.
The only Republican in the remaining field of four with a bold new vision for the party is Ron Paul. Only Paul imaginatively invokes conservatism in his call for non-interventionism, freedom of choice, and an end to the entitlement state. In other words, only the Libertarian Republican vision feels new. Only the Libertarian Republican vision has the power to steal from the Democratic playbook.
That is how you win in debate, law, sports, and politics: by appropriating your opponent's best and favorite arguments and making them your own. That is how Clinton won in 1992 and 1996. He jettisoned knee-jerk liberal Democratic ideas about welfare (and offered "workfare"), deficit spending (and balanced the budget), and law enforcement (adding 100,000 new cops). By running as a pragmatic centrist, he stole the GOP's thunder.
For all his Sol Alinsky community organizer hoo-ha, Barack Obama has deployed the same strategy. He has pushed tax cuts (for the middle class), deficit reduction (a proposed $1 trillion in cuts), and, mandatory health insurance (essentially RomneyCare) in order to cut into the GOP's ideological home turf. Even his call for increased infrastructure spending reprises a long-held Republican idea. After all, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower brought us the interstate highway system.
As his surprisingly off-the-cuff speech in Harlem last night made clear, Obama knows how to spin his narrative with confidence, intelligence, humor, and calm. He cleverly grouped the current GOP field with the failed Republican economic polices of Herbert Hoover and G.W. Bush (the two Republican presidents in power before the two greatest economic calamities of the past 100 years). In doing so, Obama is making sure that Americans do not forget the empirical failures of trickle down economic theory.
The recession was deep. The job losses significant. The pay cuts real. Despite Republican attempts, most Americans are not blaming Barack Obama for this financial disaster. They know, and Obama artfully reminds them, that he inherited the crisis. Moreover, he's at long last able to argue that his stimulus plan is paying off, that the trajectory of unemployment has consistently gone in reverse, that business confidence is rising, and that Obama-saved GM is again the number one car company in the world. The stock market seems to agree, having jumped nearly 10% in the last month alone.
Obama's foreign policy narrative is also convincing. Instead of the Republican Cold War large-footprint approach to foreign threats, Obama has deftly argued for American "smart power."
It's no secret that Bush's foreign policy blunders permanently damaged Brand America in the eyes of the world: encouraging terrorism, compounding our domestic debt, and engendering our credit downgrade, all by his outrageously costly, deceitfully sold, and wholly unnecessary Iraq detour.
By contrast, Obama's "smart power" features a U.S. that is judicious, patient, and quietly lethal in its use of military and intelligence assets. Obama quietly cleaned up Bush's loud, ponderous foreign policy mess by secretly offing Bin Laden, picking off Al Qaeda operatives using drone strikes, ending the Iraq War, nimbly riding the Arab Spring without a loss of one American life (or an unnecessary and counterproductive U.S. invasion), while punishing Iran with sanctions that are having serious bite.
The Republicans can rail all they want (and correctly so) about Obama's failure to provide strong leadership on illegal immigration, Israeli-Palestinian peace, North Korea, and long-term entitlement reform, but lacking a compelling alternative narrative, do you honestly think they have a prayer against this guy? Especially when their likely nominee, Mitt Romney, was part and parcel of the very financial industry that the average American, including OWS supporters and Tea Party backers alike, have fingered as the primary culprit in the subprime mortgage mess and concomitant economic meltdown. That these lords of finance received trillions in TARP money and other aid rubs salt in the wound of many voters. As most Americans struggled to make ends meet over the last four years, they are not going to forget that these "troubled" bankers still received their bonuses. Call it "class warfare" or "redistributionism," but Barack Obama is going to delight in making the distinction between Wall Street and Main Street, even if he signed on as Senator to bailouts of the very Wall Street firms he now excoriates.
Unfortunately for Republicans, the average American worker no longer believes in the power of "creative destruction" to regenerate American business, even if Joseph Schumpeter's famous tenet is fundamentally true. Obama merely has to compare Bain Capital, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America on the one hand versus the average American worker on the other. Even if you believe that these large financial firms have been unjustly punished, even if you believe that loose lending and the Community Reinvestment Act were the ultimate causes of the housing debacle, the optics for any Republican candidate are patently ugly.
Look. I am a socially liberal, fiscally conservative, registered independent. I am not attached to either party.
And maybe from my neutral vantage point, I am not seeing something on the ground. Maybe there is a path to Republican victory that sidesteps the glaring rhetorical and stylistic problems they now face. After hearing the President's speech last night, I just don't see it. Especially if the economy continues its upward growth rate, and unemployment keeps trending down.
Barack Obama is no Jimmy Carter. And not one of the remaining Republican candidates exhibits the clear, commanding presence of a Ronald Reagan (even the faux Reagan-esque Mr. Romney). Moreover, Republicans en masse are not going to back their only original candidate, Ron Paul, because the Texas representative makes a fatal error: he tells the truth about Republican adventurism abroad and big spending at home.
In other words, if Obama's entertaining performance last night at the Apollo tells me anything, it's Amateur Night in Republican-land, and they are likely to be yanked off the stage come November by Sandman Sim's hook.
Prove me wrong.