"The rhetoric gap: Can Obama give ‘em Hell (and High Water) before it’s too late?"
“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering,” President Franklin Roosevelt told an audience in Madison Square Garden in 1936. “They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred.”
Can anyone imagine President Barack Obama saying anything like that? The nickname of Roosevelt’s successor in the White House, Harry Truman, was “Give-’Em-Hell Harry.” As the Republican minority, backed by an avalanche of special-interest money, mobilizes to thwart the health reform agenda of the Democratic majority, maybe the time has come for “Give-’Em-Hell Barry.”
The most dangerous deficit that the United States faces is not the budget deficit or the trade deficit. It is the Democrats’ demagogy deficit. Franklin Roosevelt, looking down from that Hyde Park in the sky, would not be surprised that conservatives are seeking to channel populist anger and anxiety, not against the Wall Street elites who wrecked the economy, but against reformers promoting healthcare reform and economic security for ordinary people. As he told his audience in 1936, “It is an old strategy of tyrants to delude their victims into fighting their battles for them.” But FDR would be shocked by the inability of his party to mobilize the public on behalf of reform.
Michael Lind has a terrific Salon column today, with the subhead, “Why can’t Democrats mobilize the public for healthcare reform? Blame the demagogy gap.” I’d replace demagogy with the less incendiary and more accurate “rhetoric gap.”
Demagogues are a dime a dozen, and demagogy isn’t inherently persuasive or winning. But rhetoric is. Rhetoric is what makes a great, successful President (see “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor”: How to be as persuasive as Lincoln, 3).
I blog about the health care debate in part because success there probably makes it more likely we’ll see a climate bill and in part for what it tells us about Obama’s messaging. The ‘good’ news on the first front is that the American Enterprise Institute’s savvy centrist Norman Ornstein writes today that “The odds remain reasonable that a solid, if not dramatic, health reform bill can make it through this process and become law. Any bill, under these conditions, will be a major accomplishment. The odds have been improved, not damaged, by the president’s approach” — thanks to “Obama’s Health-Care Realism.” We’ll see.
Although he has the eloquence to be an FDR — and his achievements in clean energy and climate to date are far greater than most progressives give him credit for (see “The Green clean energy FDR: Obama’s first 100 days make “” and may remake “” history“) — Obama can’t truly be the clean energy FDR if he doesn’t master FDR’s ability to fight rhetorical fire with fire.
Now, unlike health care, where the whole message is a muddle, team Obama has half of the energy and climate message right (see “Clean energy messaging 101: ‘Green’ jobs are out, ‘clean energy’ jobs are in“).
And that’s why they are doing better on climate than health care — having passed a bill through the house and still winning on the issue in the polls.
But team Obama has mostly given up half its message unilaterally. As I wrote in July — and as subsequent conversations support — I’m told by multiple sources that the political operatives in the White House have bought into the ecoAmerica bullshit that we mustn’t explain to the public the serious threat posed by climate change (see Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ “” and that’s a good thing). And bullshit it is (see Mark Mellman must read on climate messaging: “A strong public consensus has emerged on the reality and severity of global warming, as well as on the need for federal action” “” ecoAmerica “could hardly be more wrong”). That’s a key reason Obama didn’t even show up for the single biggest climate science announcement of his administration “” the report on U.S. climate impacts “” thus negating any impact it might have had on the debate (see here).
Of course, the White House doesn’t have any problem telling the public and the media day after day the myriad catastrophic consequences that await the country if we don’t act on health care (millions more without health care, a bankrupt economy, exploding premiums). No, it’s only talking about the myriad catastrophic consequences that await the country if we don’t act on climate that is verboten. That means most of the messaging will be on clean energy and jobs “” which is a great message, one I’ve pushed for two decades now “” but it hardly justifies or motivates a 42% reduction in CO2 emissions in two decades and an 83% reduction in four decades, along with all the extensive accompanying regulations.
Since the other side has no positive message on climate, this half-message may still may work. But fundamentally, it is wrong headed, and I’ll lay out the full message this month. Obama needs to give ‘em Hell and High Water.
I’ll end by excerpting the Lind piece at length because I think it makes some important points:
Liberal intellectuals, shocked by McCarthyism and the rejection by the voters of the urbane Adlai Stevenson for Dwight Eisenhower, concluded that the American people themselves were the problem. In “The Age of Reform” and other works, the influential liberal historian Richard Hofstadter argued that the Progressive and Populist movements, far from being the precursors of New Deal liberalism, were reactionary movements by downwardly mobile professionals or farmers suffering from “status anxiety.” Seymour Martin Lipset and other sociologists and historians including Daniel Bell and Peter Viereck argued that many members of the working class had “authoritarian personalities” and that populism here as in Europe could lead to fascism. Although more accurate historians and pollsters demolished their caricature of working-class Americans as proto-Nazis suffering from “status anxiety,” the damage had been done. The New Left of the 1970s and 1980s, clashing with socially conservative blue-collar “hard-hats,” were if anything even more hostile to the white working class, and sought allies instead among blacks, immigrants and various “social movements,” most of them staffed and run by members of the college-educated upper middle class.
Whereas progressives and populists alike had been able to invoke the people against the interests, the mid-century liberals and many of their successors on the center-left to this day fear the people even more than they fear the interests. They worry that if liberals rile up the crowd against Wall Street, the rampaging mob, like the torch-bearing Transylvanian villagers in the old Universal Pictures Frankenstein movies, might turn on the universities or carry out political pogroms against minorities. When passion and polemic are ruled out as uncivil, when appeals to the people and their tradition are ruled out by liberalism’s own theory of itself, it is hard to see how there can be a popular liberal politics, as distinct from a politics of brokering among interests or elite reforms from above. It follows that liberals should focus on keeping the public calm, while carrying out reforms on their behalf — but without their participation — on the basis of negotiations among politicians, public-spirited nonprofit activists, and enlightened interest groups. The Obama administration’s approach to healthcare reform has followed this script exactly.
The two arguments on which the administration has rested the case for healthcare are calculated to appeal to elites, not the general public. One argument holds that it is immoral to allow a substantial minority of Americans, who are disproportionately poor, to lack health insurance. This argument appeals to progressive Democrats in the academic and nonprofit communities for whom politics is a form of charity. The other argument is that healthcare cost inflation will wreck the economy in the future, unless it is brought under control. This argument appeals to the Wall Street donor wing of the party, symbolized by Robert Rubin, whose prot©g©s, including Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner and Peter Orszag, surround Obama in the White House.
But if you are trying to mobilize public support for a sweeping healthcare overhaul, appealing to charity or the concerns of bondholders is not the way to go about it. “Vote your interests!” Harry Truman told Americans in 1948. Most Americans have employer-provided healthcare. They are worried about keeping it if they lose their jobs and about the rising cost of deductibles. Democrats should have sold healthcare reform as establishing a permanent, universal right to affordable healthcare.
You also can’t fight and win a war without naming your enemies. In the case of healthcare, the enemies of the American people — if I may be demagogic as well as accurate — include rent-seeking insurance companies, rent-seeking pharma companies, and overcompensated doctors and hospitals.
Last but not least, you need a narrative in which today’s campaign is not an isolated technocratic attempt to solve a particular public policy problem, but part of the ongoing story of progressive reform in America. In his 1964 Democratic convention speech, Lyndon Johnson invoked American history in laying out the vision of the Great Society: “The Founding Fathers dreamed America before it was. The pioneers dreamed of great cities on the wilderness that they crossed.” It’s hard to make that appeal if you agree with elements of the academic left that the Founders were self-seeking crooks, that the pioneers were genocidal monsters and that great cities on the wilderness are ecological disasters. The consensus liberals of the mid-20th century and the multicultural liberals of the late 20th century have been too busy exaggerating the anti-Semitism of 19th-century populists or emphasizing the racist attitudes of the 19th-century labor movement to invoke the ideals those precursors share with post-racist 21st-century liberals. But we can be inspired by the universal ideals that we share with our predecessors without endorsing or excusing their parochial prejudices.
A Rooseveltian or Trumanesque campaign speech, addressing the concerns of the American majority, invoking the heroic history of American reform and naming the enemy, practically writes itself:
You can read this excellent proposed speech in Salon.
I would note that, unlike health care, the public understands who the enemies are — the polluters, Big Oil, and the conservatives who have been kowtowing to them for years. That’s another reason we’re doing better on climate than health care.
If Barack Obama can speak in accents like these, then he will be able to declare, like Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.”