Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom III: Requesting An Obama Re-Launch

By Mark Penn Name

More than the race speech, more than "dumb war," more than the 2004 convention breakout, this is the speech that Obama needs to be great. Expectations are mile high. He can meet them if he treats Denver not as a nomination or culmination, not as a moment in history that will live forever (though it will), but as a political re-launch. Be pragmatic and precise. Yes, lace the words with eloquence. Yes, stick to your winning themes. But up the ante, and avoid pitfalls.
  • Choose your targets carefully. Since this might be the only speech of yours that some Americans see from start to finish, there will be intense pressure from your staff to check every last policy box. Resist it. Talk about three or four—maximum five—meat and potato policies. Iraq and the war on terrorism; energy and the economy; and health care. This will show that you have priorities in order and aren't bent on spending billions on everything under the sun.
  • Wedge in just one big issue (national service?) that can communicate a larger point about the kind of cultural shift you want to bring about. Bush said, ad nauseum, he'd change the tone in Washington. Make clear that you can really make it happen.
  • Nobody said a convention has to be devoid of fresh policy prescriptions. Surprise us with a new idea—preferably one that doesn't cost billions of dollars. If your remarks are 99% grandiloquent rhetoric about bringing American together and moving America forward, you'll miss an opportunity.
  • Try to find a name for your governing philosophy. "Compassionate conservatism," however ultimately misleading, gave shape to Bush's ideology in 2000. Clinton, everyone knew, was a New Democrat. Reagan was a movement conservative. Where does liberalism end and post-partisan pragmatism begin? To prevent others from putting you in a box--which is easy to do given the thinness of your record--you need to take the opportunity to frame your ideology more precisely and proactively. "Change" isn't enough anymore. Claim a brand.
  • Beware of King-sized overreach. Of course you'll reference "I Have a Dream." Of course you'll talk about how far we've come as a country, how far we have yet to go. But any parallels between your speech, which is essentially political, and the 1963 speech that catalyzed and encapsulated the most important social movement of the second half of the 20th century, should be delicately and humbly drawn. Yes, yours is a historically momentous achievement—but leave that to others to say. We've heard enough about race for a while. And as Hillary might remind you, you're trying to become JFK or LBJ—not MLK.
  • Go easy on Bush. I know, this seems ridiculous. How can you pass up a 70 mph pitch down the middle of the plate? But you're a leader now. Leaders define themselves and their missions on their own terms, not in constant opposition to bogeymen. (Somebody needs to tell this to McCain.)
  • Be aggressive in whacking McCain—especially on the economy. This should be your sharpest point of contrast. At the same time, cite a couple of places where you agree with the man. Lots of Americans are disappointed that the high-tone, new-look campaign we were promised has been replaced by round after round of petty, partisan wrangling. From the start, your "turn the page" appeal came across as a genuine commitment to transcend some of that crap. Prove that you're not just paying it lip service.
  • Hillary Clinton is an impressive and effective politician, not an American hero. Be kind to her—but don't lay it on too thick. You're doing pretty well among white women already.
  • Make clear that you're a pragmatist. Bush was dogged by dogma. McCain is, too; prove that you're nimble enough to care more about results than rigid ideology. America's ready for that kind of leader.
  • Instead of simply retelling your thumbnail biography (which of course you'll have to do, in part), pull out a particularly telling moment. Too much of your personal history is told in broad brush. You're a storyteller. Get textured, specific and authentic.
  • Be as plain spoken as possible. At times, be conversational. And watch the preacher-like rhythms, which have always sounded a little false (to me, anyway). This will be a real challenge in a football stadium. You will be tempted to speak up and out to the crowd. But if the presentation is too big, it won't play well on camera—and risks reinforcing the single most effective character knock they make on you, that you're more style than substance. Some very simple sentences will go a very long way.
  • Take on the experience question directly. When John Kerry saluted and reported for duty it fell flat. It was an awkwardly staged photo-op transparently designed to cover over a perceived weakness. Don't pretend you are as experienced as McCain, don't pretend it doesn't matter. Tell Americans you understand their concerns and take them seriously. Then, explain why your life and work has prepared you for the challenge of leading the country through these times.
  • Make a joke or two. When you get up on stage, with the crowd practically worshipping at your feet, you need to remind them you're human—and simply repeating that you're human isn't good enough. Humor does it best.
  • Remember Kennedy. The American people may be down on their luck, but they don't want someone who'll tell them government can solve every problem. Call on all Americans to be part of something bigger, and don't gloss over sacrifice. You've become increasingly good at this over the course of your campaign. Drive it home.
  • Rephrase some of your old standbys. I know you're convinced that lots of people will be meeting you for the first time. Maybe so. But this campaign has been going on so long, and the candidates have been so exhaustively covered, that to a critical mass of people, "Yes We Can" and other mantras are, well, mantras. Boilerplate now feels like boilerplate, both to you and to the voters.
  • Don't go too long. If you pause for every applause break, say two words when one is all you need, waste 20 minutes patting backs and paying tribute to King—and if your intro and conclusions are nearly as long as your substance. Before you know it, you might wind up on stage for an hour and the story becomes: self-indulgent speechifier yearns to make history.
Penn Name is a former Capitol Hill speechwriter

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