Monday, August 15, 2011

Fantasy Obama Versus Real Obama

By Mike Dorf

In my latest Verdict column, I take a crack at writing a speech for President Obama based on the assumption that he wants to be more combative as he begins his re-election bid.  In my role as volunteer speechwriter, I adopt a more partisan tone than in my usual writing, on the theory that this is what the genre requires--even though Obama himself, to this point, has tried to appear above the fray.  I had the idea for the column early last week (when I thought I would write it as a blog post), and so I felt a bit prescient when, on Friday, he delivered a speech that, as reported about, appeared to go in the direction I was suggesting in my (then-written-but-not-yet-published) proposal.  After I watched and listened to the Obama speech, however, I concluded that the real version fell short of my fantasy version in at least three respects.

So, go read my column, imagining the 2008 campaign Obama delivering it.  Then spend a few minutes with the following real version:

Now to three deficiencies of the real Obama speech:

1) In my fantasy speech, I have Obama go through the motions of sounding post-partisan but then deliver some very pointed attacks at the Republican Party, which he mentions by name, repeatedly.  My fantasy speech takes the gloves off when it comes to assessing blame.  The real speech also tries to have it both ways, but errs much more on the side of post-partisanshipitude.  Real Obama says that "some in Congress would rather see their opponents lose than see America win."  (Emphasis added.)  That's close to the attitude I'd like to see Obama adopt, but still sounds too much like he's campaigning against both Democrats and Republicans.  The line should have been written this way: "Many Republicans in Congress would rather see Democrats lose than see America win."

It can be argued, I suppose, that in order for Obama to maintain his post-partisanshipiness, he needs to avoid direct attacks.  But given a choice between opening himself up to charges of insincere post-partisanness and continuing to take punches without fighting back, I'm with Chuck Schumer (as reported here) in thinking that it's far better to err on the side of calling out Republicans.  Indeed, I don't even think this can be fairly characterized as hypocrisy.  Having repeatedly extended an olive branch, only to have it snatched by Republicans who used it to poke him in the eye, Obama can credibly say, "I sincerely would like to move beyond partisanship, but I can't do it alone."

2) Obama's delivery is lifeless.  Maybe the President is feeling depressed because of the way the economy is going or because of how Republicans, liberals, or the press have been treating him.  My view is that he needs a raucous crowd to energize him.  So my advice to the White House on this score is to stop putting out speeches in which the President sits in an empty Oval Office and speaks into the camera.  The only clips released to the public should be from speeches on the stump, where he is more emotional and thus much more charismatic.

3) On policy, the President is playing small ball.  In Friday's speech, he proposes the kinds of initiatives that Republicans could support and have supported in the past: tax incentives for businesses to hire; trade deals; patent reform; etc.  Some of these may be good ideas but neither singly nor collectively are they likely to have more than a tiny impact on the overall health of the economy.  By contrast, my proposal--money to states and localities to hire a million public employees, more than funded by expiration of the upper end of the Bush tax cuts--would actually do some good and would highlight the one very stark ideological difference between Obama and the Republicans.  Moreover, Obama has been in favor of the tax proposal since day one, so these are natural positions for him to take.

The NY Times story linked above for the Schumer quote also says that there is now a struggle going on within the White House over whether to continue in above-the-fray mode or to go into attack mode.  I'm glad to see that there's somebody on the inside arguing for the latter (Gene Sperling, as it turns out).  Here's hoping the President listens and then rediscovers his voice.


Sam Rickless said...

I couldn't agree more. But I am worried that the small-ballers in the White House are going to win this one. Notice that the NYTimes article you cited says that Sperling is pushing for....wait for it.... "tax incentives for businesses that hire more workers". C'mon, Gene, you can do better than that. Businesses are already sitting on lots of cash and making handsome profits thankyouverymuch. The main reason they're not hiring is that demand is low (consumer confidence hasn't been this low since 1980). In this economy, tax incentives aren't going to make a dent. What the economy needs is good-old Keynesian pump-priming, a version of which you are (rightly) pushing. So even if Sperling wins the argument, you're pretty clearly not going to see Obama come out for more government spending.

What is so sad about this is that Obama some time ago pledged to make decisions based on the best science available. So much for that.

Leadership is about seeing the facts, applying the best strategy, and then explaining the strategy to the people. I think that Obama sees the facts, knows full well what the best strategy is, but refuses to act on what he knows. The NYTimes article put it well: "Voters believe that paying down the debt will help the economy, and the White House agrees." Obama has poll-tested the voters, sees what they want, and is dutifully following them into a double-dip (or worse). That is the very definition of political cowardice.

Sam Rickless said...

Like the speech, too, Mike. You have my vote.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Thanks Sam. I had thought to downplay the Sperling position too, based on the point you make. However, I gave him the benefit of the doubt because the Times story also says that "Democrats" are pushing foreclosure relief and that Christina Romer wants short-term spending. I suspect that Sperling agrees with these sentiments, but the story's author simply chose to highlight one of his positions. In any event, I fear that stimulus has been ruled out by political considerations, leading Obama to repeat FDR's 1937 mistake.

egarber said...

It would be interesting to see how Obama's tone compares with Clinton's during his run-ins with Republicans. I could be wrong, but in the battles Clinton chose, I think he was much more direct than Obama -- saying "Republicans" when he meant to blame them.

In the end, voters ended up seeing Bill as the adult in the room, always willing to compromise, but drawing the line when the "children" threatened the country's fiscal standing. In other words, you can be both post-partisan and a strong leader, when one side is clearly in the wrong.

Paul Scott said...

Loved your speech - well apart from your last line, but then I don't suppose atheist Obama is going to get elected anytime soon.

I think CU is going to go over most people's heads,I think I'd skip the whole part about the SCOTUS and just lead into that part of the speech with the quote from Texas.

In any event, while a nice start, speeches (until recently) have not really been a problem for Obama. I suspect they won't be once he starts campaigning again. Real fights on policy, otoh, have been a huge problem for him. He could not even get his way on healthcare when his party controlled both houses. He could not see the importance of Kennedy's seat in the Senate and from that day he has been able to accomplish nothing of real value.

Since no one will run against him in his own party and I won't vote for whatever religious nut-job comes out of the Republican group, he doesn't have to fear losing my vote - unless I choose not to vote at all. I cannot honestly say any longer that I think four more years of Obama would be a good thing. It seems likely to result in four more years of Republican policies without the Republicans taking any of the blame for those policies.

It is going to take more than speeches to change my mind about that.

Blud Bitter said...

WOW Gold Thanks Sam. I had imagined to minimize the Sperling location too, using the level you develop. However, I offered him the advantage of the uncertainty because the Periods tale also says that "Democrats" are driving foreclosures comfort and that Christina Romer wants short-term paying out. I suspicious that Sperling wants with these emotions, but the story's creator merely decided to focus on one of his jobs. In any occurrence, I worry that government has been determined out by politics factors, major Government to do FDR's 1937 error.