Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Obama's Mission: Feeling the Moment

By John Neffinger

“The president's going to explain why he thinks the American people are angry and frustrated.” So says White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs of tonight's speech.  That may not cut it. 

The race for the rage began in earnest weeks ago, with Senator McCain and GOP Rep. Issa launching crusades against too-big-to-fail banks and Secretary Geithner, respectively.  Obama also pivoted to populism with his new soak-the-banks tax – er, “fee.”  Now, in the wake of the Massachusetts Miracle/Debacle, everyone in politics seems to agree that the electorate is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, and whichever party speaks to that best will win big in the midterm elections to come. 

The Democrats in general and Obama in particular have two things working against them here. First, the democrats have power – lots of power, with the White House and (for the time being) giant majorities in Congress.  Usually this is a good thing, but right now one in six of their working-age constituents has no job.  And when those constituents get restless and it's time to throw the bums out, they're the bums.  Axelrod and Plouffe, the brains behind Obama's Change We Could Believe In campaign, now talk of Congressional Dems running against the Republican minority, sporting their new slogan: You Think We're Bad? Check Out Those Other Guys!  And yet, when Axelrod was asked this Sunday about the country's economic problems, he explained that President Clinton had left a giant surplus, and President Obama had inherited a giant debt.  It's tricky to make your campaign about how bad your opponents are if you're too polite to name them.

This brings us to the Democrats' second problem, and Obama's principle challenge in the speech tonight.  Generally speaking, Democrats speak policy while Republicans speak principle; Democrats speak to the head while Republicans speak to the heart.  Already Obama has tried to appeal to the angry mob with his bank tax, and tonight he will unveil a three-year discretionary spending freeze.  And maybe a jobs package.  All of these are arguably good policy (except the mid-recession spending freeze), and all could show the President taking bold action.  But policies alone will not bridge the emotional gap growing between him and his constituents, of all ideological stripes.  Obama is cool, calm and collected.  Voters are agitated.  This combination worked well when he was the savior insurgent calling for change.  Now he's an incumbent counseling patience, and people are fresh out.  The perception is that he just doesn't get it.  He's emotionally out of step.  We don't ever see him angry.  We don't see him stare down the enemy and lay down the law.  We see him give thoughtful explanations of why people really should do what he'd like, and when they don't, he seems miffed, pinching in the corners of his mouth like Kermit the Frog.  

So if the President really does “explain why he thinks the American people are angry and frustrated,” Democrats beware.  But if instead he shows us that he is himself angry and frustrated, if he flashes some flint and some fire, if he rails against Washington like the Reagan of yore – if when you watch, you can feel it in your gut that this man is finally mad enough to pull the levers of power and bend Washington to his will...  Then we have ourselves a ballgame. 

In fact, if you really want to know how well he does, watch him with the sound off and read the transcript separately.  Yes, you'll miss Joe Wilson's latest ad libs, but you'll see Obama's political future more clearly.

Neffinger, a principal at KNP Communications, is a veteran speechwriter and trainer for high-level corporate executives and political leaders.

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