01/28/2011 06:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Friday Talking Points [153] -- SOTU-palooza

The past week in politics was, quite obviously, dominated by President Obama's "State Of The Union" speech to Congress. For those of you who may have been in a coma, here is a quick recap of the messages of Obama's speech, the official Republican response from Representative Paul Ryan, and the unofficial Tea Party Republican response from Representative Michele Bachmann:

Obama: "We can make the future so bright that O.S.H.A. will require us all to wear shades to view it."

Ryan: "Be afraid. Be very afraid! The Day of Reckoning is at hand!"

Bachmann: "Which camera? That one over there?"

This is only a slight exaggeration, I should mention. Ryan actually did use the phrase "Day of Reckoning" in his speech, believe it or not. You just can't make this stuff up, folks.

Of course, the public mostly noticed Obama's joke about fish. Sigh. You can't make things like that up, either.

After the speech ended, the news media pronounced themselves bored by it. Some of the media (notably, broadcast television) mostly ignored the Michele Bachmann part of it, and some of the media (notably, cable television) focused on it, but most failed to come to the obvious conclusion: the Republican Party is in the midst of a civil war with itself.

Now, when these factional disputes arise within political parties, historically the Republicans have been much better at conducting such bickering far from the eyes of the media, and far from the eyes of the public. They normally have a period of intense, behind-the-scenes disagreement -- and then they all appear before the cameras with smiles and identical soundbites to describe the agreed-upon stance on policy.

This time, though, it may play out a bit differently. The Tea Party Republicans don't seem very disposed to follow this script. To be honest, they seem to want to follow a different script: have the dispute out in the open, in full view of the cameras, in order to leverage their crowd appeal to cow the establishment Republicans into doing things their way.

It's easy to feel sorry for the establishment Republicans (or, to take a page from Speaker Boehner, to shed a tear for them), because this is normally the way Democrats conduct their intra-party arguments -- instead of holding a sober and respectful intervention behind closed doors, you throw furniture at each other out on the front lawn while screaming at the top of your lungs.

Seriously, Bachmann's unprecedented (at least in my memory) "rogue" State of the Union response was an indication of major disagreement within the Republican Party. Look for this divide to grow wider in the coming weeks, as Republicans finally have to "put up or shut up" on the budget, and on what exactly they are going to cut from it. The saner voices within the party are desperately trying to remain politically realistic, and begging the upstarts not to commit political suicide by proposing such Draconian cuts that the public at large freaks out. The Tea Party Republicans counter that that is exactly why they've been sent to Washington, and you're either part of the problem or part of the solution.

The next few months certainly should be interesting, that's for sure.

But for now, let's take a quick look back at the week that was, and then spend the rest of the column examining the "narrative" of Obama's speech.

Oh, and I apologize in advance if anything important happens today, because I am writing this column a day in advance due to a previous commitment on Friday -- so late-breaking news will not be covered this week, sorry about that.


Two Democrats were pretty impressive this week, but only rate an Honorable Mention. President Barack Obama, of course, gave a big speech this week. But since the rest of this article deals with the speech, nothing more needs be said about this at the moment.

Senator Mark Udall of Colorado deserves the credit for the mixed seating at the State Of The Union, which impressively changed the entire nature of the speech. But we handed him a MIDOTW award last week for getting this ball rolling, so we're only giving him an Honorable Mention this week, for how well the plan worked. It could have wound up a big flop, with just a handful of the politicians participating -- but instead it seemed to be a smashing success (at least from what was visible on television). It's unknown whether this "Date Night" approach will be followed in future presidential addresses to Congress, but it's got my vote for how it completely defused the "pep rally" spectacle these things had become.

But the real winner this week of the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award was Senator Charles Schumer, who leads the Senate Rules Committee for Democrats. Schumer managed to get some Senate rules changed, which (to put it mildly) doesn't happen very often. Three other Democratic Senators also deserve credit for this accomplishment -- Senators Mark Udall, Jeff Merkley, and Claire McCaskill -- so we're just going to go ahead and give out four Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week awards this week (making Mark Udall perhaps the first person who has won an MIDOTW and an Honorable Mention in the same week, I should mention).

Now, there were advocates for more drastic rule changes who are going to be disappointed because Schumer (and Harry Reid) didn't go far enough. But, as the Washington Post put it, the changes were "the most significant since the filibuster threshold was lowered in 1975 from a two-thirds majority to 60 votes." Which ain't exactly chopped liver. [Update: This was later changed, for some reason, to: "The broad agreement is the most significant change in the chamber's rules in 35 years" on the Washington Post website.]

For ending the odious practice of the "secret hold," ending the stalling tactic of forcing bills and amendments to be read, and for reducing the number of presidential appointees who must be cleared by the Senate by one-third, our four winners deserve their MIDOTW awards. Sure, it's half a loaf, but it's a lot better than nothing at all -- especially considering the glacial historic pace of Senate rule changes.

[Congratulate Senator Charles Schumer on his Senate contact page, Senator Mark Udall on his Senate contact page, Senator Jeff Merkley on his Senate contact page, and Senator Claire McCaskill on her Senate contact page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]


Before we get to the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week for this week, we've got to add a footnote to last week first. Last week, we did not officially hand out the MDDOTW award, but called for nominations in the comments. A Huffington Post commenter pointed out that I had missed Representative Steve Cohen conjuring up the image of Nazis to describe his political opponents. Pretty much by definition, this is an almost-automatic way to win MDDOTW awards (one of the penalties for employing what is officially known as the Reductio ad Hilterum fallacy), so we hereby retrospectively declare that Steve Cohen was last week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.

In the early running for this week's MDDOTW was Rahm Emanuel (just on general principles), but then a judge declared he was not eligible for the nomination, so that put an end to that.

Instead, we are left with a rather weak entry. Representative Dennis Kucinich is suing the sandwich maker of the congressional cafeteria because he bit into an olive pit. No, really. He wants $150,000 for (among other things) "suffering and loss of enjoyment."

Now, we can understand that Kucinich is probably blocked from the traditional way congressmen get revenge on companies for poor service (calling them before a congressional committee to publicly make them squirm in the spotlight), since Democrats don't control things in the House anymore. But one would tend to think that Kucinich probably enjoys pretty robust dental insurance, as well as getting his lifetime pension after serving in Congress. Suing for his out-of-pocket costs for dental procedures would even be understandable. But suing for "loss of enjoyment" is a big step down from being taken seriously as a presidential candidate, don't you think?

Excuse me, but we've got a late-breaking news flash... What's that? The Supreme Court Of The Friday Talking Points Awards Committee has ruled?... Well, it seems that Rahm Emanuel has been ruled eligible for the MDDOTW after all, much to everyone's surprise.


Distractions aside, Kucinich was our early favorite for this week's MDDOTW, but in the end we decided not to be petty -- even though we could do so to make a point (for someone of Dennis Kucinich's stature, filing such a lawsuit was a pretty petty thing to do), we're not going to.

Because the real Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week was Representative Jim Moran of Virginia, who recently said the following on Arabic television:

[The results of the 2010 midterm election] happened because of the same reason the Civil War happened in the United States. The Civil War happened because the Southern states, particularly the slaveholding states, didn't want to see a president who was opposed to slavery. In this case a lot of people in this country, I believe, don't want to be governed by an African American, particularly one who is inclusive, who is liberal, who wants to spend money on everyone and who wants to reach out to include everyone in our society. That's a basic philosophical clash.

This is a pretty ham-handed attempt to "play the race card," especially coming from a white guy. For such an embarassing misreading of last year's election results, we hereby award Representative Jim Moran this week's MDDOTW.

[Contact Representative Jim Moran on his House contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Volume 153 (1/28/11)

President Obama has been shaking things up at the White House ever since the midterm elections. But behind the more visible changes of replacing West Wing staffers, insiders report that there is an even more fundamental change going on. Not on policy, but rather on communications and message.

The State Of The Union speech seemed to confirm these rumors. Because Obama has (finally!) realized that they just haven't been doing a great job communicating to the public for the past two years. Most importantly, the White House is in the process of defining their "narrative."

Yes, it's true -- it's a little late in the game to be doing so. But perhaps not too late.

Obama had a great message and a great narrative during his historic campaign. Since then, not so much. He has managed to get an impressive amount of things done, but somewhere during this process Obama strayed from the basic concept of storytelling. With close advisors (Rahm Emanuel, we are looking in your direction...) much more concerned with "winning the day's news cycle" or "winning the week," Obama lost sight of the forest in this endless obsession with each individual tree.

The State Of The Union speech Obama just gave went a long way towards regaining control of telling a compelling story. Americans love a good story, and they want specific political agenda items to fit into that story. Republicans are very, very good at this sort of thing. Democrats, not so much. Obama was supposed to be the exception. Maybe he still can prove to be.

George Lakoff wrote an excellent Huffington Post article today which examines the message Obama put forward in his speech, which I heartily encourage everyone to read. He boils down Obama's State Of The Union message to one word: competitiveness.

Obama's speech was a call to action, a vision of the future, and a warning. His main story was: "This is and has always been a great country. But other countries are now in competition with us. We have always risen to meet such challenges together, and I believe we can do so now. American must continue to lead, and we must all do our part to make sure this happens."

This is a story everyone can relate to. It gives moral heft to Obama's agenda -- by showing why he is for what he is for.

I'd like to look at a few excerpts from Obama's speech (mostly from the opening and closing sections) to show how this narrative resonated.

Obama opened by speaking of the recent Tucson tragedy. This had the effect of sobering the room up and warming up the "we've got to work together" theme.

We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.

That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation.

Now, by itself, this simple recognition won't usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.

I believe we can. And I believe we must. That's what the people who sent us here expect of us. With their votes, they've determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all -- for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.

At stake right now is not who wins the next election -- after all, we just had an election. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It's whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It's whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but the light to the world.

This returns Obama to the "post-partisan" theme of his election. America's in this together, folks, and we've all got a vested interest in succeeding for the future. Obama then indulges in a little patting ourselves on the back, before pivoting to warning that we now face new competition. He does this in a very human way, relating a story of yesteryear's American workers, and the world we now face.

But we have to do more. These steps we've taken over the last two years may have broken the back of this recession, but to win the future, we'll need to take on challenges that have been decades in the making.

Many people watching tonight can probably remember a time when finding a good job meant showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown. You didn't always need a degree, and your competition was pretty much limited to your neighbors. If you worked hard, chances are you'd have a job for life, with a decent paycheck and good benefits and the occasional promotion. Maybe you'd even have the pride of seeing your kids work at the same company.

That world has changed. And for many, the change has been painful. I've seen it in the shuttered windows of once booming factories, and the vacant storefronts on once busy Main Streets. I've heard it in the frustrations of Americans who've seen their paychecks dwindle or their jobs disappear -- proud men and women who feel like the rules have been changed in the middle of the game.

They're right. The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there's an Internet connection.

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They're investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became the home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer.

So, yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn't discourage us. It should challenge us. Remember -- for all the hits we've taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers -- no workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We're the home to the world's best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on Earth.

This whole section is excellent, really. On a very basic level Obama is saying: I know it's a more complicated world, but it's never going to go back to what it was. Instead of wasting our energy looking for someone to blame for this, let us put our energy into winning the future rather than wallow in nostalgia for the past.

Obama then winds up the introduction segment of the speech, with a healthy dose of optimism.

The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can't just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, "The future is not a gift. It is an achievement." Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age.

And now it's our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government. That's how our people will prosper. That's how we'll win the future. And tonight, I'd like to talk about how we get there.

Obama then gets to the "meat and potatoes" part of the speech, but while outlining his agenda for innovation, education, infrastructure, tackling the debt, and all the rest of it, he is careful to always try to connect his ideas back to his competitiveness theme. Here's just one example, on the subject of infrastructure:

The third step in winning the future is rebuilding America. To attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information -- from high-speed rail to high-speed Internet.

Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation's infrastructure, they gave us a "D."

We have to do better. America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, constructed the Interstate Highway System. The jobs created by these projects didn't just come from laying down track or pavement. They came from businesses that opened near a town's new train station or the new off-ramp.

Obama returns to the theme over and over again: We have to improve, or else we risk losing the competitiveness race with the rest of the world. We are already losing this race in some key areas, which is why it is imperative that we do better now.

This is a very tough and risky message for any American politician to deliver, but Obama did an excellent job of walking the fine line between issuing a warning and yet still remaining sunnily optimistic about our chances in the future. As a contrast, Paul Ryan did not walk this fine line very well in his response to Obama. It's a tough line for any politician to walk.

Obama's conclusion returned to the opening theme that, while we are in danger of falling behind, it's still a good idea to bet on America. And the American Dream.

We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. Reforming our schools, changing the way we use energy, reducing our deficit -- none of this will be easy. All of it will take time. And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. The costs. The details. The letter of every law.

Of course, some countries don't have this problem. If the central government wants a railroad, they build a railroad, no matter how many homes get bulldozed. If they don't want a bad story in the newspaper, it doesn't get written.

And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.

We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything is possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.

That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight. That dream is why a working-class kid from Scranton can sit behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father's Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth.

Obama then used as an example of "that American Dream" the heart-warming story of a Pennsylvania company that was key in rescuing the trapped Chilean miners -- once again, humanizing what he was saying with a story everyone can relate to. He then ended his speech with a rousing call to action, returning to his main narrative to reinforce the message.

And later, one of his employees said of the rescue, "We proved that Center Rock is a little company, but we do big things."

We do big things.

From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That's how we win the future.

We're a nation that says, "I might not have a lot of money, but I have this great idea for a new company." "I might not come from a family of college graduates, but I will be the first to get my degree." "I might not know those people in trouble, but I think I can help them, and I need to try." "I'm not sure how we'll reach that better place beyond the horizon, but I know we'll get there. I know we will."

We do big things.

The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it's because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.

That last line was particularly good, since this is the line most presidents start their speech with.

Some may say it is too late for Obama to regain control of his own narrative. Some may say Obama missed this opportunity already, in his communication problem over the past two years. Some discount the entire thing as nothing more than "the beginning of the 2012 campaign."

I have to disagree. Constructing a narrative is important. It is important to communicate why any politician fights for his or her agenda. Or political party, for that matter. Democrats have been so miserable at creating a narrative for the American people in the past few years that there is an aching void for this sort of thing. Part of President Obama's change in direction post-midterm seems to be a belated recognition of these facts. Creating a narrative, reinforcing that narrative, and selling individual ideas as components of that narrative is a crucial part of being a successful politician -- especially so for a president.

So I'd like to applaud Obama's speech for attempting something which the Obama team hasn't even attempted in quite some time: telling a story. And I hope to see more of it in the very near future.


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