In my first two entries in this three-part series about what President Obama needs to do in his second term to put the country on a new path, I wrote that Obama must make 'strange bedfellows' and that he must break gridlock through small, local actions in order to be successful. In my final post in this series, I examine how Obama can change his rhetoric to restore our belief that we can get things done, together.
Recommendation #3: Speak to the people, about the people, for the people
As Americans listen to the daily stream of rhetoric from Washington, D.C., they have come to feel they live in a Tower of Babel, bereft of any possible way out of the mess. And yet people want to restore their belief that the country can come together to get things done. As President Obama approaches his second term, he has the chance to elevate a new narrative about people, not politics or politicians, and how many Americans are creating a new path.
But first he will have to make a difficult choice himself: to put an end to his own daily speechifying. Too often the daily remarks from the White House only serve to sharpen the tit-for-tat tone of our politics and cloud our view of a new path.
President Obama must commit himself to making a different kind of speech. Nearly all the speechifying Americans hear today is directed at them, turning people into a passive audience dutifully waiting to receive focus-group tested lines from a small cast of leaders they are willing to listen to. This is fast creating a nation of consumers who are in turn concerned only about their own good, and not the common good -- when we desperately need citizens who are ready to do the work of the nation.
A renewed belief in the possibility of the common good will never come from canned rhetoric. People need to see believable actions. We've all seen how people's perspective can change when they come together with others to make a difference. These examples are passed along through word of mouth by friends and neighbors. Still other examples will come from communities beyond our own. They exist already, but do we see them? And do we understand their meaning and their power?
The president can use his pulpit to help people see these moments, to tell the unfolding story of America rebuilding its belief in itself. Through his speeches, he can help to make these moments part of our daily conversations. In this way, his task is to make people and what they do the primary actors in his speeches -- and not himself. It is the stories of people stepping forward, how they are making a difference, and how their actions add up to setting a new path. This is what Americans need to hear if they are to renew their belief.
But let's be clear: This is not about trotting average citizens out as mere props in a politician's efforts to humanize a political position, but telling human stories about people finding a way forward.
While the president looks ahead to what we can create together, he must also reach into our history to remind people that it is the efforts of people like them that have enabled this country to right itself before at difficult times. From child welfare to civil rights to local neighborhood rejuvenation, to ensuring there's a loving adult in the life of a child, to forcing our politics to improve -- ordinary Americans have always been vital to the effort to look ahead together.
The president is uniquely positioned to take on this role. He has leaned into such speeches in the past -- from his Philadelphia remarks on race to his statement in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings. He brings to his presidential role the longstanding sensibility of a community organizer. His presidential campaigns have helped to revolutionize the engagement of ordinary Americans in the political process.
Americans intuitively know that it will take a collection of small steps to put the nation and their lives on a better path. There is no quick fix. And yet so many people lack the belief that the nation is even capable of coming together to take those steps.
President Obama must speak out above the noise in the Tower of Babel to help Americans see that within them is the chance to restore their belief in one another. And he must do this over time -- as with any good story.