Finally, Obama Adopts Family Responsibility Theme

I’ve argued to anyone who’ll listen that the meme Republicans have used about government having to tighten its belt “just like families do” was not only flawed, but ripe for adopting as a Democratic theme. Now, President Obama did it with his Saturday radio address.

When faced with financial challenges, families do several things. Yes, they cut back spending.  But they also look to increase income. They know not everything can or should be cut across the board. Some things you can do without; others are necessary to succeed in the long run. So, like the family alluded to in Obama’s speech where the mother is looking for a second job because they want their child to finish college, families do what’s necessary to pay for the things they think are important. The president uses this narrative to turn the tables on the disingenuous GOP narrative and argues the federal government shouldn’t cut everything. Some investments must be made because if we don’t, we’ll put our kids at a disadvantage to compete in the future. They won’t have the education or the infrastructure to compete. They’ll be more dependent on foreign oil than ever before with an antiquated transportation system that will choke economic growth. All because we want to cut taxes and slice not only muscle but bone from the our governments.

Text of speech is here. Video below.

Shared Sacrifice

If you relied on The Washington Post’s coverage of President Obama’s speech yesterday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, you would have missed some interesting messaging that approaches a narrative that could be very successful for the president come 2012.

Conventional wisdom is that the Chamber and the GOP with its relentless “creating jobs at all costs” has a winning message. But we can’t forget that many Americans, including Tea Partiers, are mighty upset with business and the damage Wall St. has done to the economy. Voters would need to be living in a cave if they didn’t realize that the gulf between rich and poor is widening and that CEOs are not held accountable for their failures, instead receiving golden parachutes.

Moreover, a wide swath of Americans have been harmed by the recession. It’s not just the unemployed. It is those who are working art-time when they want a full-time job or those working in jobs that pay a fraction of what those folks made before the recession. It is those who can’t see how they can send their kids to college, let alone retire, except in poverty. In short, there’s no shortage of people who are pissed and who are making a lot of sacrifices.

Asking Americans to sacrifice, while not in fashion since Ronald Reagan made greed an admirable trait, has in the past be fruitful. Americans are willing to sacrifice, especially for the benefit of their children.

Which brings me to these lines from Obama’s Chamber speech, from the AP’s telling of it.

"I want to be clear: Even as we make America the best place on earth to do business, businesses also have a responsibility to America," Obama said.

"As we work with you to make America a better place to do business, ask yourselves what you can do for America. Ask yourselves what you can do to hire American workers, to support the American economy, and to invest in this nation."

Yes, it sounds almost Kennedy-esque: “Ask not what your country can do for you….”

He needs to take the narrative a little further:

Americans have made tremendous sacrifices to help this economy recover. They’ve taken jobs that pay less than they used to get paid or part-time work. Some of course, can’t find jobs at all. College seems out of reach. Retirement is a mirage.

What sacrifices are America’s businesses prepared to make? What can CEOs and company directors sacrifice?

I’ve heard business people say [this is an actual quote from a businessman after Obama’s speech] ‘Bottom line, the most patriotic thing a company can do is ensure it is in business and take steps to stay in business; otherwise everyone loses and more people lose their jobs.’

That’s a cop-out. Sure a company needs to stay in business, but this notion that the only thing a company needs to do is maximize shareholder value is wrong-headed and unpatriotic. American business has a moral responsibility to be a good corporate citizen. After all, if the Supreme Court says corporations are citizens, they need to act like citizens. They need to remember they have a responsibility not just to profits, but to the communities they are in, the workers who make them successful. Continually cutting wages and benefits while CEO salaries go through the roof doesn’t sound very American to a lot of American people.

So let’s get back to the idea that we’re all in this together, and that Americans—all Americans including the titans of commerce—must, as the Constitutions exhorts us, “promote the general welfare.”

Profits are good. Capitalism is the basis for the greatest economy in the world. But capitalists have responsibilities just like everyday Americans.

So the next time your board of directors meet ask, “What sacrifices are we willing to make?”

Taking It Down a Notch to Raise It to a New Level

The president’s speeches can sound canned, a tutorial on oration without passion, empathy or connection. But this one today at the National Prayer Breakfast was something different. He lowers his voice and comes off more humble and sincere. While it was about faith, he took a moment to defend government’s role, saying that churches, charities and the private sector can’t do all that’s necessary to help those who need it. But doing so it in that quieter tone made it that much more effective.

Investments = Spending, So?

Political Wire has this quote of the day:

"When the President talks in his speech about investment, the American people need to understand that translates into spending."
— Sen. John Thune (R-SD), quoted by KFSY-TV.

And I hope his answer is an emphatic:

Yes, it means spending. The deficit is a problem and I’m proposing ways to reduce it. But a much greater problem in America is jobs—good jobs now and in the future. We need to invest in infrastructure that puts people to work right away.  It’s not make work; it’s much needed work as we’re falling behind the rest of the world in the sophistication and reliability of our roads, bridges, electrical grids and water and sewer systems. We need to invest in education so that the next generation is trained for jobs of the 21st century.

Mr. Thune’s Republican solution is to cut spending and depend on the private sector. Is the private sector going to build roads and bridges? Of course not. For the last 30 years, we’ve seen nothing but trickle down schemes by Republicans that have left us less competitive in the world with declining incomes and disappearing futures for the middle class. The American people aren’t buying Republicans’ slight of hand that takes money from the middle class and gives it to the wealthiest 1% in this country.

But my guess is that at best we’ll only get the first part of this answer. After all, he wants a “civil” tone. To Obama and the rest of the country that translates to meek.


The New York Times’ Matt Bai thinks President Obama needs to connect more directly with voters than he has, though he doesn’t expect him to tweet.

Perhaps, though, the president’s team is over-thinking the challenge, putting too much emphasis on how to use the trendiest applications or on how to interact with voters, when what really matters is creating an authentic narrative. One of the most pervasive activities on the Internet, after all, is the basic conveyance of personal experiences by way of the written word — a tendency to share stories widely in e-mails or on blogs, rather than talking one on one to a friend on the phone. In the online age, we are all diarists.

Mr. Obama is probably the most talented writer to occupy the office in the television age; his political career was made possible, in large part, by the candid memoir he wrote as a younger man. So it is hard to understand why the president hasn’t tried to use that talent the way Mr. Kennedy capitalized on his personal charm.

You can easily imagine Mr. Obama sitting in front of a keyboard at the end of a long day, briefly reflecting on the oddity of a personal encounter or on the meaning of some overlooked event, or perhaps describing what it is like to stand in the well of Congress and deliver the State of the Union address. It could be that in order to expand the reach and persuasiveness of the modern presidency, Mr. Obama simply needs to be his online self — not so much a blogger as a memoirist-in-chief, walking us through history in real time.

Blogging, as much as i love it, is not a presidential habit I’d like to see. Yes, Obama is a somewhat talented writer. But he really needs to transform himself into a talented extemporaneous—and humorous—speaker. In this age of biting hyperbole—”Nazi socialist,” anyone?—he would do well to put the GOP down with humor. Lord knows the GOP gives him plenty of opportunity to point out their hypocrisy. He should take some questions at a couple of photo opp each week and be prepared to deliver a couple of prepared (to seem off the cuff) bon mots to the press corps. Engaging the press (and at the same time delivering a few biting comments about them) would make him seem less aloof. He just doesn’t seem to have the confidence to do it, however, as his advisors have convinced him to be overly cautious. Or that is his nature.

Still, an “authentic narrative” would be nice.

Obama’s Press Conference

I’m not happy with him or his tax compromise, and I worry about his political skills.

But this was a strong press conference.

Terrorist Faces 20 to Life: Trial a Failure

The verdict in the trial of Ahmed Ghailani means his role in the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa earns him 20 years to life imprisonment. But the GOP and some Democrats have won the message war: This is a failure of the Obama administration’s plans to try some terrorists in civilian court because it was the only charge of more than 200 for which he was found guilty.

What it is, really, is another example of the failure of the administration’s ability to get in front of an issue and frame it correctly. In fact, administration officials were silent.

Neither President Obama nor Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. commented publicly on the verdict, which other officials said they interpreted as a sign of quiet defeat [emphasis added]. The political climate for civilian trials will grow only worse in January once Republicans – who are widely opposed to using federal courts to prosecute Guantanamo detainees – take over the House, officials said.

Apparently, though, the administration feels the fault lies with the GOP.

Senior administration officials expressed frustration with the Republican response to the Ghailani case, saying the verdict changed nothing about the legal viability of civilian courts to handle terrorist cases. "Ghailani is an unfortunate addition to a long-running saga of politicization and outright distortion of this issue," one official said.

So sorry they feel frustrated. Would someone mind telling them that when they offer no position or framing of their own, reporters are left with the impression that there is no defense, let alone an offsetting offense.

How many folks know that not only did George Bush try terrorists in civilian courts, including the infamous “shoe bomber,” but that civilian trails have been successful during the Obama years?

Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, said the White House remains committed to using all available venues for trying terrorism suspects. And in the past year, with little controversy, the administration has tried numerous terrorism suspects, including individuals who planned attacks on Times Square and the New York subway system.

If you don’t communicate your own successes, don’t cry because the GOP won’t.

Some folks tried, of course, but listen to the stilted, bloodless defense.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the homeland security subcommittee on intelligence, noted that Ghailani is facing a sentence stiffer than all but one meted out by military commissions.

"More than 200 years of American jurisprudence and a clear track record of success should not be thrown out the window or falsely characterized for political advantage," Harman said. "The Obama administration needs to push back."

Blah, blah, blah, jurisprudence, blah, blah, blah.  Push back?  We’re waiting.  How about this reframe?

“Why does the GOP so mistrust Americans?  Our country is founded on the idea of jury trials, but the GOP doesn’t trust Americans to uphold that tradition.  Do they think average Americans are too stupid to be on a jury?  Do they think that average Americans want to coddle terrorists? Or do they want to do away with jury trials altogether?

“This is another brazen, deceitful attempt by Republicans to instill fear and divide Americans.  They want to play politics with our security.”

Ahmed Ghailani will get 20 years to life.  I think American jurors did their job, and I’m proud of them.  Why aren’t Republicans?

In a related note, The Post’s writers adopted an awkward GOP frame for the issue of torture.  Note this paragraph:

"This was a difficult case in that there were questions about Ghailani’s treatment during the previous administration" – such as the use of enhanced interrogation techniques – "that led to a key witness being excluded," {Justice Department, spokesman Matthew Miller] said.

Note the phrase between the em dashes.  That’s the Bush term for torture.  Did the reporters substitute that frame for torture, the word Miller said, or did they add the phrase to describe the “treatment” Miller alludes to?  In either case, the word is “torture,” not “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which is, among other things, vague and a phrase that was not in the language before the Bushies created it.

Kathleen Reardon is right. Obama is no great communicator. 

[L]ong diatribes with no passion, assertiveness and spontaneity in the face of GOP hostility are going to make this presidency a short, disappointing one.

Obama Must Be a Genius

Because this makes no sense to a mere mortal like myself.

After two years of the Party of No, Obama blames himself for the tone in Washington.

He said his own “obsessive” focus on implementing the right policies had led him to ignore a part of the reason voters handed him a mandate in 2008.

“I neglected some things that matter a lot to people, and rightly so: maintaining a bipartisan tone in Washington,” he told reporters in a brief question-and-answer session aboard Air Force One as he returned from a 10-day trip to Asia. “I’m going to redouble my efforts to go back to some of those first principles,” he promised.

…For much of the last two years, Mr. Obama and his aides have pointed the finger of blame at Republicans, saying that efforts at changing the way Washington works have been systematically blocked by Republicans.

But Mr. Obama appears to have now concluded that some of the fault is shared by his own staff, which often pursued politics by traditional means as he tried to push through fiscal stability measures, health care reform and new financial regulations.

And I am sure the GOP will redouble their efforts.

Ah, but he’s such an optimist.

Mr. Obama told reporters that he “very confident” that voters this month were not casting ballots for gridlock.

“They are not going to want to just obstruct, that they’re going to want to engage constructively,” he said of his Republican adversaries. “And then we’re going to have a whole bunch of time next year for some serious philosophical debates.”

I think he’ll soon break out into a rendition of Kumbaya.

But then he says, it was really just a misunderstanding by the American people.

Among the things he neglected, he told reporters on Sunday: “Making sure that the policy decisions that I made were fully debated with the American people and that I was getting out of Washington and spending more time shaping public opinion and being in a conversation with the American people about why I was making the choices I was making.”

I’m beginning to wonder if Obama has intellectual ADHD.

Will Democrats Fall for the Tax Trap?

Congressional Republicans are floating the “compromise” of extending all tax cuts for two years.  It sounds like a compromise all right, and of course, The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery, who betrays her Republican bias in almost every story she writes, takes pains to call other Republicans “equally willing to compromise,”  to frame the debate between compromising Republicans and the Obama position.  Of course, his position was already a compromise—a willingness to extend some tax cuts but not all.

But it’s a trap for Democrats.  It would put tax cuts squarely in the middle of the 2012 election, and Republicans are sure to call for their extension.  They would love to have tax cuts as a central issue because no one ever loses by appealing to the most selfish and ignorant of the American electorate.

With a closely divided Congress a near certainty for the next two years, and the economy likely to improve some, voters are likely to give credit to the fact that more Republicans are in Congress, even if they accomplish nothing.  And if we have a double dip recession, the GOP will not get the blame; Obama will.  Having the tax cut debate during the 2012 presidential campaign is a sure loser.

McChrystal Gone, Obama Saved

There was no way Gen. McChrystal could save his job without the president sacrificing his.  Now, will Obama fire all the aides quoted in the story?  It shouldn’t be hard to find out who they are.

The downside, of course, is that the general, once his inevitable retirement occurs, and his aides will talk, and not kindly of the administration.  That will add fuel to the partisan fire that Obama is over his head in foreign affairs and as commander-in-chief.  But he would have heard that if he kept the general, along with accusations that he was weak.

Obama does not make decisions quickly, nor does he change strategies at the drop of a hat.  But this may be seen as a pivotal point in his presidency where he begins to assert himself more forcefully.  We may see it soon with the climate change bill.  I doubt that as much as the GOP will try, McChrystal’s firing will hurt the president.  In fact, maybe some independents will see that he has some cojones.

One can only hope.