By Jim Kennedy
(Cross-posted from Huffington Post)
In some of his speeches over the past decade, to illustrate the importance of recognizing our common humanity, former President Bill Clinton has spoken of the people who live north of Nelson Mandela's home in Africa and how they greet one another not with a "hello," but the phrase, "I see you."
The same words are used by the inhabitants of Pandora in Avatar, in recognition of their common Na'vi-nity.
President Barack Obama, despite his African roots and Na'vi-like tall and thin frame, is unlikely to be saying "I see you" in his State of the Union message. But he might take its spirit to heart in strengthening his connection with the American people once again.
The bond the President forged in the 2008 election is strained, but not broken. The Massachusetts Senate race highlighted the challenge he faces, but was more an alarm clock than a death knell. If he and his team learn the right lessons and make smart choices as a result, the Scott Brown election could be one of the best things to happen to the Obama Administration and the Democrats this year.
President Clinton had no such special election to foreshadow what was looming for him in the 1994 midterm elections, and the Democratic losses in the Senate and the House were catastrophic. Still, he managed to turn his fortunes around in time to win an impressive reelection victory just two years later.
He did so, as Mark Penn recently wrote in The Huffington Post, by moving to the "vital center" and pursuing a balanced budget, welfare reform and other policies that focused on the concerns of struggling, middle class families. Bruce Reed, who played a big role in charting that centrist course in the Clinton Administration, wrote here that President Obama and Democrats "should reassure citizens every step of the way that our mission is to make government better, not bigger."
With that in mind, President Obama's version of "I see you" must convey to people that he understands both the extent of their problems and their hesitancy to grow government to solve them. He has to assure citizens he's got the vision of where he wants to take the country and the wisdom to make it happen, while simultaneously respecting their skepticism of his and government's ability to succeed. Sure, it's oxymoronic, but nobody promises a president a communications Rose Garden.
Of course, complicating any effort to fashion bold-yet-limited, centrist-yet-sexy policy initiatives are the resurgent Republican attack machine on the right and the mad-as-hell-and-we-just-might-not-take-it-much-longer netroots on the left. But rather than play piñata for politicos in extremis, President Obama should leverage the right-left criticism to help him drive home the point that he is pursuing a bipartisan course right down the middle of American family concerns. In practical terms, that means less fighting for a fragile 59-plus-1 Democratic majority on the Hill, and more work behind the scenes with the likes of Joe Lieberman, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to grow a center-out coalition around issues of common concern. The resulting bipartisan solutions can enjoy both a stronger chance of passage in Congress and more support from independent-minded people in America.
President Clinton said it well in his My Life biography: "the electorate may be operationally progressive, but philosophically it is moderately conservative and deeply skeptical of government." If President Obama can Na'vi-gate that theme and fight for a future in which people have the tools and the freedom to pursue their middle class American Dreams, then he will have conveyed to those most concerned about his leadership, in deeds if not in words, "I see you." And they, in turn, will see in him once again the hope and promise they celebrated just one year ago this week.
Jim Kennedy, a good Gotham Friend, is a former White House and Senate communications staffer and speechwriter.
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