Karen Tumulty and Shailagh Murray today claim Obama must be the messenger-in-chief for Congressional Democrats in the mid-term elections.
Strategists at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue say it is now clear that, although Obama’s name will not be on the ballot, it will fall to him to build the case for the activist approach that he has pressed his party to take over the past 16 months. And just as important, they say, he must take the lead in making the argument against the Republicans.
His ambitious agenda is "why the president was elected," said David Axelrod, Obama’s top political strategist. "We need to make the case as to what we are doing, and why that’s consistent, and why we don’t want to go backward."
It makes sense to many, who view Obama as a gifted speaker who can arouse the electorate as he did in the 2008 presidential campaign. Moreover, while it’s true that off-year elections have been determined largely by local issues, campaign strategies and the advantages of incumbency, history is not helpful now for two reasons. Obama himself, while holding moderately favorable ratings, is reviled by his opponents, making this year’s elections more dependent on his own popularity or lack thereof, and alas, a measure of bigotry among a small portion of the electorate. Secondly, as online communication by the grassroots has become more sophisticated, supporters of both parties have the advantage of determining what’s important in the election. Candidates find it increasingly hard to maintain control of their campaign’s strategy and positioning. So Democrats want the president to deliver their message and make this a national campaign.
But no one else has the president’s power to make the case for his party’s agenda and, conversely, against the opposition. Democrats on Capitol Hill have made no secret of their desire to see Obama get more seriously into the fray. While it’s an easy applause line to decry that Washington is broken, they complain that the president has not been forceful enough in laying the blame on the Republicans. In part, they suggest, that is because Obama and his advisers are too protective of the post-partisan brand of politics that got him elected — but that has lost some of its sheen as his major initiatives have passed on largely party-line votes.
"I’m all for drawing contrasts," said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, using a phrase that politicians often employ as a euphemism for going negative. The president’s challenge, he said, is the same as that faced by Democrats who are on the ballot this year: "You must define yourself, you must define your opponent before they do, and you must frame the choice."
The problem is Obama was very effective communicating an emotion in the 2008 campaign, but now he has specific policies to promote and has clearly failed to explain the principles and moral foundations of them. While I agree that he needs to paint the GOP as the party of no, he doesn’t seem capable of rallying support for his agenda. Why? He is too intellectual. As do many Democrats, he wants to explain why his policies are good but does so in the language of a policy wonk, not as an inspirational leader. He makes no appeal to the “common good.” He does not frame his choices as between right and wrong. And if he should, he comes off unconvincingly, as if he has condescended to connect with the hoi pilloi. Rather, he sticks to the issues in the conventional framing and language, which doesn’t serve Democrats well.
Democrats should not talk about "the environment," "the unemployed" or "the uninsured." Instead, they should replace those phrases with ones that have more appeal to voters, such as "the air we breathe and the water we drink," "people who’ve lost their jobs" and "people who used to have insurance."
That’s the advice of one of the party’s newest and more unusual gurus, Drew Westen. Westen is a psychologist and neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta who, unlike most political advisers, has never worked full time on Capitol Hill or for a political campaign.
To some, Westen is another George Lakoff who has argued for different framing for progressives but has not been able to gain traction with Congressional Democrats. In fact, it seems clear that the Dems have no Frank Luntz, whose language advice seems to resonate with Congressional Republicans. But Westen has a point.
"There are a few things if you know about the brain, they change the way you think about politics," he said in an e-mail. "If you understand we evolved the capacity to feel long before we evolved the capacity to think, instead of barraging people with facts (the standard Democratic way of talking to voters) you speak to people’s core values and concerns."
While calling the GOP “the party of no” is a good tactic, Dems also need to make the case for an activist government in terms people understand. The Gulf oil spill is a good place to start. In fact, Tom Friedman has argued that Obama and Democratic congressmen have missed an opportunity. But seizing an opportunity with ineffective language can do more harm than good. The oil spill is not about globs of oil appearing on Gulf beaches or dead birds. It’s about “people who are losing their jobs while their property is destroyed because of businesses driven solely by profits and their exorbitant executive salaries.”
The language used in the financial reform effort has been better but still has room for improvement. “Moving money between Wall St. firms doesn’t create jobs for anyone, only million-dollar pay days for traders and their bosses.” It’s a battle not just between “Wall St. and Main St.” but “between American who create and do the jobs that make us great as a country and those who care only about themselves.” We need to use capital “to build a future, not a mansion.”
Dems need to push back against the Republicans demonization of government workers, or in GOP parlance, “bureaucrats.” “The government is us. Good, democratic government is the principle the nation was founded upon. Government is your neighbor. The police officer, the teacher, the fireman, the people who deliver the services we all cherish. If it weren’t for government we wouldn’t have interstate highways, social security, Medicare and civil rights. Government is what provides a check when you lose your job. Government is the worker who ensures food for children of parents who’ve lost their livelihood. Government is what keeps our skies safe, are bridges sound and our energy abundant. What Americans care about is not the size of government but the effectiveness of government.
We need talk about how “we’re all in this together.” Even the “common good” can be better positioned as “looking out for each other, caring about our neighbors. What makes American great is our capacity to work for the greater good, a good that makes our communities safe and friendly. Our liberty is not a selfish one, but one we want for every American. We’ve learned over the past 235 years that when we have opportunities we accept responsibilities.
“What has happened to us in the firs
t decade of this century is that incomes have declined for the first time since the Great Depression. We have seen the middle class decimated by greedy bankers, regulators who care about business profits instead of us, and politicians who care more about their own election than the future of America. A campaign worth having is a campaign that’s worth winning—or losing—on principle. Our principles are equal opportunity and a level playing field for all, especially the people who work to make America great.”
I question whether Obama, who is disciplined on messages but sometimes lacks passion that seems real, can pull off this message. Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, maybe. But not Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi. So who can speak for Democrats?
Maybe Obama has it in him. The Republicans clearly fear it.
Republicans said they, too, have taken notice of Obama’s tougher language, and they warn of potential long-term consequences. "I think at some point he risks undermining his own credibility," said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "People expect the president of the United States to rise above the back-and-forth of election-year politics, but I guess that’s the risk he’s taking."
As if to say, leave the dirty work to us.