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.