A Tepid, Insincere Speech

Can we give up the lie that Barack Obama is a great speaker? As I watched the SOTU speech last might, I think I see two reasons that Obama’s rhetoric, while enhanced by his beautiful baritone voice, doesn’t resonate as much as it could. One is visual and one is verbal.

Note that in most sentences, the last couple of syllables drop in pitch, almost to the point that he seems to swallow the last words. That’s not a critical flaw per se, but when it becomes the dominant trajectory of his sentences, it borders on boredom. Speakers should mix up their inflections to keep the speech lively and varied. It reminds me of a child who, when asked if he did something bad, drops the ends of his sentence as he loses confidence in his argument. Obama sounds as if he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying or loses his assuredness. Hopeful speech should sound hopeful in its inflections, meaning the ends of sentences should soar, not sink.

Second, only once in the entire speech did he look at the audience at home. In fact, his body is mechanical in its back and forth between the two teleprompters. This reliance on the words in front of him instead of those in his heart is becoming the stuff of ridicule. But most important, he fails to connect with the home audience. In fact, his side to side head moves makes it obvious to everyone that he’s reading. He might as well read from the script on the lectern.

I give him credit for saying he’s opposed to extending the Bush tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 and for taking on the Supreme Court. (Although wouldn’t it have been more effective if he looked directly at them and said, “The decision is wrong and we will overturn it.”) The fighting tone some credit him with sounds to me like the empty words of the class intellectual, who will, at the first sign of a real fight, fold as Obama has so often in the first year.

Where is Obama’s Larger Message?

Newsweek’s Joe Klein reminds us how memories get muddled.  Ronald Reagan, the man conservatives love to love, in fact recognized that his early tax cuts were a mistake and that he actually raised taxes two years after being elected.

[S]ince deficits do matter — and since Reagan’s so-called supply-side cuts blasted an enormous hole in the budget — the President had to come back in 1982 with the largest peacetime tax increase in American history: the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which raised $37.5 billion, or 1% of gross domestic product (GDP), per year. He also signed a $3.3 billion gasoline-tax increase. The next year, he signed another whopping tax hike, designed to save Social Security.

But still the Reagan deficits got out of hand and Presidents Bush I and Clinton raised taxes, and as Klein put it, “Somehow the economy not only survived, it prospered.”

I thought about this after reading Tom Friedman’s Friday column in the New York Times.  He argues that President Obama has lacked an overall theme to his change agenda.

He has not tied all his programs into a single narrative that shows the links between his health care, banking, economic, climate, energy, education and foreign policies. Such a narrative would enable each issue and each constituency to reinforce the other and evoke the kind of popular excitement that got him elected.

Without it, though, the president’s eloquence, his unique ability to inspire people to get out of their seats and work for him, has been muted or lost in a thicket of technocratic details. His daring but discrete policies are starting to feel like a work plan that we have to slog through, and endlessly compromise over, just to finish for finishing’s sake — not because they are all building blocks of a great national project.

What is that project? What is that narrative? Quite simply it is nation-building at home. It is nation-building in America.

“Nation building” is not a winning phrase for the president, in my opinion.  It makes us sound like a third-world country (even if we are becoming one). 

But he does need a larger message.  My guess is it’s not that he can’t outline one; he’s afraid to articulate it.  We have not raised federal taxes in this country since 1993.  That alone is not a reason to.  But since then we have skewed the tax system so badly that not only have income disparities grown, but we are losing ground – in healthcare, education, infrastructure.

As I grew up in the 50s and 60s, life was pretty good in this country.  Most folks felt a better life was around the corner.  Not anymore.  We are not necessarily the greatest land of opportunity.

Actually, some other advanced economies offer more opportunity than ours does. For example, recent research shows that in the Nordic countries and in the United Kingdom, children born into a lower-income family have a greater chance than those in the United States of forming a substantially higher-income family by the time they’re adults.

If you are born into a middle-class family in the United States, you have a roughly even chance of moving up or down the ladder by the time you are an adult. But the story for low-income Americans is quite different; going from rags to riches in a generation is rare. Instead, if you are born poor, you are likely to stay that way. Only 35 percent of children in a family in the bottom fifth of the income scale will achieve middle-class status or better by the time they are adults; in contrast, 76 percent of children from the top fifth will be middle-class or higher as adults.

…As a result of economic growth, each generation can usually count on having a higher income, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than the previous one. For example, men born in the 1960s were earning more in the 1990s than their fathers’ generation did at a similar age, and their families’ incomes were higher as well. But that kind of steady progress appears to have stalled. Today, men in their 30s earn 12 percent less than the previous generation did at the same age.

The main reason today’s families have modestly higher overall income than prior generations is simple: More members of the household are working. Women have joined the labor force in a big way, and their earnings have increased as well. But with so many families now having two earners, continued progress along this path will be difficult unless wages for both men and women rise more quickly.

My mother didn’t work when I was growing up,  Neither did most of the women in our middle class neighborhood.

We will never go back to those good ol’ days.  But Joe Klein argues, we needn’t go that far back to the future.

An antitax fetishism has overwhelmed both parties. Along the way, despite the melodramatic rhetoric, the actual rate of federal taxation has wobbled a bit, from a high of 20.9% of GDP in 2000 to a recession-driven low of 17.7% last year, but averages out to just under 19% from 1980 to today. If the not-so-onerous Clinton tax rates are restored when the economy recovers, the federal Treasury would be enriched by nearly $300 billion per year.

Why does this matter now? Because we are in the midst of a debate over how to fund a health-care-reform plan — and the idea of raising taxes, even just a little bit, to pay for it is causing heart failure among our legislators. They are looking for somewhere between $30 billion and $35 billion per year. If the bill isn’t properly funded — if working-class families don’t receive large enough tax credits to help pay for their newly mandated health insurance, if they’re forced to pay thousands of dollars in new out-of-pocket expenses — Republicans will use "socialized" health care as a bludgeon against Democrats in 2010 and 2012.

…It is a national scandal that we’re nowhere close to having a reasonable discussion about taxes. A Reagan-size increase probably would be unwise right now, given the shaky economy. But the conversation will become unavoidable next year, when the Bush tax cuts expire. A restoration of the Clinton rates would go a long way toward paying down the Bush deficits and the assorted Bush-Obama federal bailouts and creating some breathing space if health reform costs more than expected. One hopes that Democrats, and fiscally responsible Republicans, will locate the backbone between now and then to do the right thing.

No, Obama’s big theme isn’t I’m going to raise taxes.  But in defense of higher taxes he needs to make a red,white and blue argument for fairness, something we’ve lost in the past 30 years.  Ronald Reagan made it OK to be greedy.  It seems with the populist anger against the obscenely wealthy, now is a good time to make that larger argument for justice, a fair, living wage for a fair day’s work, and a level playing field that rewards work and frugality.  Once the recession eases, we need to raise taxes not only on the super rich, but the well-to-do also, many of whom will be considered middle class ($100,000 and up). I would gladly pay them if I thought we’d have true healthcare reform, better transportation systems and a vibrant middle class, which is what makes this country great.

It is the common good argument, one that Obama hesitates to make, being perhaps afraid of the rich white men on Fox News
and on talk radio.  He’s begun to fight back against right-wing extremists.  Now he needs to make the case to the rest of us.

‘We Wanted a Do-Nothing President’

Here’s a letter from a Newsweek reader on the week’s previous Anna Quindlen column about Obama’s change challenge.

Anna Quindlen asserts that, to help move the president’s liberal agenda along, Americans "should start acting more like the voters who elected him." I suspect it’s a mistake to equate the reasons many independents voted for President Obama—his youth, his family, his freshness after eight years of GOP governance—with strong support for his policies.
Calvin l. White Ooltewah, Tenn.

Mr. White seems to be saying, “Yeah, we elected him but we didn’t really want him to do anything.”

A Fiasco of Olympic Proportions

Just wondering…Did Obama believe his own PR?  Did he really think his presence in Denmark would make the IOC swoon?  So much for the advance office.

The slap to Chicago was such that some IOC members were left squirming. The city’s plans for Olympic competition along its stunning Lake Michigan waterfront had long made it a front-runner and earned support from the highest possible level — Obama himself. His wife, Michelle, flew in two days before the vote to butter up IOC members, an essential part of the selection process. And Obama himself flew in Friday morning.

IOC members had seemed wowed, posing for photos with Mrs. Obama and taking souvenir shots of the president with their mobile phones. But, in the vote, Chicago was shunned.

"Either it was tactical voting, or a lot of people decided not to vote for Chicago whatever happened," IOC member Gerhard Heiberg said. "Nobody knows, but everybody is in a state of shock. Nobody believes it. I’m very sorry about it."

Clinton: Obama to Recover Once Healthcare Reform Passes

Ever the astute politician, former President Bill Clinton has got this right.

Clinton predicted "the minute health care reform passed, President Obama’s approval ratings would go up 10 points." And he said they would go up 20 points next year once Americans saw that none of the bad things Republicans said would happen came true.

A 20-point gain is a bit of a stretch, perhaps.  But it makes sense that, while the extreme right will find something else to wail about, once healthcare reform is understood not to include gassing granny, most folks will be happy with it, assuming that the bill is written so that most of the reforms are immediately effective.  Once people start finding affordable healthcare, the better off Obama’s popularity numbers will be.

But the devil is in the details.  One thing I haven’t heard discussed is the cost of the insurance for people in the upper middle class.  Once you get passed $66,000, which seems to be the cut off point for government aid, cost can be an issue, even for folks making more than $100,000 per year.  The insurance companies won’t be able to deny you for pre-existing conditions, but can they raise your rates so high it won’t be affordable?  Can they offer “affordable” insurance premiums but with high deductibles?

Obama’s Partisan Political Courage

They are only three decisions, all of which could be characterized as acts lacking courage.  But Obama’s recent decision to scrap a missile defense system located in Poland or the Czech Republic and now his decision to tell N.Y. Governor Paterson to not run for re-election and to publicly back Sen. Bennett in Colorado who is facing a primary challenger are three acts that I think took courage.  The first because it plays into the meme about Dems being weak on defense and the second because he’s getting overtly political on the type of Democrat he wants.  He is already backing Arlen Specter but you can argue that was designed to say thanks for switching parties.

He may say he doesn’t like partisan politics, but he plays it.

Is Obama Tough Enough?

The left punditry is starting to come down on Obama, wondering whether, as Politico’s Roger Simon points out, Hillary Clinton was right:  You may campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose. 

In her former life as a presidential candidate, Clinton warned voters that Obama would let them down. She warned them that when the going got tough, he would fold up.

She said it was not just a matter of Obama lacking experience — that was the least of it — but that he lacked the strength, the toughness, the will to get the job done.

Obama seems at this juncture weak-kneed.  The right’s tried and true strategy of intimidation seems to be working, as it does whether they are in power or out.

Even Gene Robinson, the Washington Post columnist and one of Obama’s most ardent defenders, is beginning to wonder.

It’s true that politics is the art of the possible, but it’s also true that great leaders expand the scope of possibility. Barack Obama took office pledging to be a transformational president. The fate of a government-run public health insurance option will be an early test of his ability to end the way Washington’s big-money, special-interest politics suffocates true reform.

…What the president hasn’t done is the obvious: Tell Congress and the American public, clearly and forcefully, what has to be done and why. Take control of the debate. Consult less and insist more. Remind the Blue Dogs who’s president and who’s not.

Giving up on the public option might be expedient. But we didn’t elect Obama to be an expedient president. We elected him to be a great one.

It’s fair to criticize the country’s most progressive voices.  While some leaders are vocal, the progressive base is silent.

So where are the liberal protesters? The initiative has passed to the know-nothing right for two big reasons.

One is Obama himself. This president recoils from confrontation, even with those who are out to destroy him. He has had ample opportunities to put himself on the side of popular economic grievances and to connect America’s economic troubles to the forces that Roosevelt called "economic royalists." But Obama, whose propensity for consensus is hard-wired, keeps passing up those opportunities.

…Despite the president’s history as a community organizer, his style as president is to tamp down popular protest, not rev it up. I know of several cases in which the White House requested allied progressive groups to cool it.

Cohen’s second reason for the lack of protests is that unions can’t organize the necessary protests.  I disagree.  When you’re unemployed, there’s plenty of time to go to meetings and rallies to demand the change Obama promised.

Simon thinks that the president will eventually push for a public option and make it happen, even if it takes reconciliation so it can’t be filibustered.

I’m skeptical, but have been surprised before when Obama has pushed hard when he gets near the goal line.

I can’t believe that he thinks ditching the public option and other concessions to the right will help him electorally.  If he caves on this, I won’t be working for him next election.  By then, maybe I’ll have the opportunity to work for a new progressive party.  It may not be practical, but if you want to get a party to move in your direction, build a movement that threatens to take votes from them.  Maybe then Democrats, including Mr. Congeniality, will take notice.

White House Caves…Again!

What chance is there for a public option – or even significant healthcare reform, if the White House caves in to GOP pressure on such a small matter as this.

Following a furor over how the data would be used, the White House has shut down an electronic tip box — flag@whitehouse.gov — that was set up to receive information on “fishy” claims about President Barack Obama’s health plan.

…Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, wrote a letter to Obama raising privacy concerns about what the senator called an “Obama monitoring program.”

Media Incompetence

Another voice calling for calling a lie a lie.  Obama’s hope for a new kind of politics because of media’s incompetence.

I warned that his vision of a “different kind of politics” was a vain hope, that any Democrat who made it to the White House would face “an unending procession of wild charges and fake scandals, dutifully given credence by major media organizations that somehow can’t bring themselves to declare the accusations unequivocally false.”

Krugman goes on to challenge Obama to get better at delivering his healthcare reform message.

It would certainly help if he gave clearer and more concise explanations of his health care plan. To be fair, he’s gotten much better at that over the past couple of weeks.

What’s still missing, however, is a sense of passion and outrage — passion for the goal of ensuring that every American gets the health care he or she needs, outrage at the lies and fear-mongering that are being used to block that goal.

What Krugman leaves out is that it is up to Obama to challenge MSM to engage in something remotely related to responsible journalism.  Right now, MSM is letting the cable news echo chamber define the debate.  At least the New York Times is trying.

Stifling Free Speech, Part 2

ABC is reporting that Texas Republican Senator John Cronyn is sending a letter to the White House complaining that the Obama administration is stifling free speech by asking supporters to send the administration any “fishy” emails they receive about healthcare reform.  “Fishy” is a funny word to use in this case, as what they apparently were referring to emails that make claims about reform that the reader finds unusual given what s/he heard from reputable sources.

Seems Republicans want to make any outrageous claims they want to without being scrutinized.  What they want is to limit my free speech by prohibiting me from telling others that their claims are wrong.

But fishy was the wrong word.