My initial reaction to reading and then watching President Obama’s speech last night was that it was a very strong speech, one even more effectively delivered than written. There were two notable “show, don’t tell” moments that I thought were particularly helpful on the President’s behalf.
First was the high-profile, notorious Joe Wilson moment, a serious breach of decorum (in the U.S.) that served to underscore the exact point Obama had been making: we’d like to have a substantive contribution from Republicans, not the lying – his word – histrionic nihilism we’ve been seeing. Cue Joe Wilson with lying histrionics. Well done, Joe. It pissed people off, made a money-bomb for his opponent Ron Miller, and was similar to the way Dems (although certainly not Republicans) reacted to Sarah Palin’s acid floor speech at the convention on Sept 2, 2008. We saw the few Republicans who were in field offices last year motivated by Palin’s presence on the ticket but not McCain’s; we also saw many more people showing up to Obama offices in part galvanized by opposition to her sneering speech (and overall Palinosity).
The second “show, don’t tell” moment was the one on the issue of tort reform that Republicans hold dear. When Obama mentioned this subject and suggested a practical approach that accounted for across-the-aisle concerns, Republicans cheered. Obama continued, engaged by their cheering, and within his body language and tone of voice it struck me that he seemed to have shifted into live negotiation rather than a one-way speech. Optically, it was a show of good faith that seemed to give truth to his offer of open-doorism. It was a visceral, good guy, higher ground moment.
Obama may have given the carrot, but he also seemed to give the stick, the one Obama we’re not used to seeing. That un-seen Obama is the one people who knocked on doors for him are dying to see when push comes to shove on this legislation, and the manner in which he closes this policy debate is already the most fluid piece of his eventual legacy. For all the criticism of George Bush, Obama could use a little Deciderism here in the endgame, and that’s the (not so) secret hope of his supporters. Obama reads books on Lincoln, goes out of his way to draw parallels and celebrate the 16th President at every available moment, and he clearly wants his lasting legacy to be one of Lincoln-scale greatness. The chances of that grow much smaller if he flubs this.
That – and badly misreading the mood of those who sweated for him all last year – are the two big danger points to Obama if there’s an ineffective or merely mild bill he gets to sign. There’s a fair amount of disbelief here. It’s not about the “left of the left,” it’s about my 60-something mom, who went knocking on doors last year for the first time because she believed that this guy was different and would deliver, but who sent me a note not long ago that read, in pertinent part: “Can't believe Obama would not follow thru on a public healthcare system. Has everyone who helped elect Obama gone fishing? Do you know who to write to?”
There is some monster cynicism hiding (not so subtly) around the corner for Obama personally if this reform effort is seen as a falling seriously short of what it could have been. Especially when we see glimpses of Obama as he was last night. That was The Obama of Promise. Obama is seen by many as one of those rare people who has the power to move people and overcome inertia with his rhetorical talent. These same people look at polls like the CNN one showing one in seven viewers switched support in the President’s favor and think: this guy could have made this happen if he’d gone all out for it from the getgo. If it doesn’t work out the way many of his supporters want, they will know he personally underachieved, they will blame him, and that will hurt his brand in a long-lasting, nagging way. Lincoln will be off the table; he’ll more likely be Bill Clinton, a guy who could and should have been so much more. Sometimes Obama has seemed tone-deaf to this danger, and that has been surprising. One of the things he’s notable for is an emotional intelligence that is specifically not tone-deaf.
Hence: “Now What?” Will it be a “game changer” speech, as Sen. Ben Nelson suggested? Or will it be what people who are cynical about Obama’s true commitment to the robust public option fear: more of a political-gain speech for Obama personally than a policy-gain for the bill? And will those who support a public option actually work with knocks and calls for an issue campaign as opposed to an election campaign?
If I were Obama’s team today, I’d have suggested that the way to handle the Joe Wilson episode would be the way I saw Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer once handle a similar situation. In 2007, during tense state budget negotiations, the Republican Majority Leader melted down with a profanity-laced tirade that predictably caught statewide attention. Schweitzer replied that he knew the Majority Leader and that to judge a man by his worst public moment would be a mistake. Not long thereafter, Schweitzer got his way on the bill.
Importantly, Obama should take this approach and also remind people that although Wilson’s objection was not a truthful one, that if anyone out there was bothered by what they saw with that display, the best action would be to not waste energy attacking Mr. Wilson but instead to contact their Representative and Senators and express their opinions on getting a health insurance reform bill passed. If people don’t know the phone numbers & emails for their Representative’s or Senators’ offices, he should say, just go to www.barackobama.com and type in their home address/zip code to find it. He’d have a big platform to make that pitch with media attention hot on the story.
Ultimately, the success of last night’s speech can’t be determined until we see the outcome. Effectively, as he always does, Obama closed with a personal story. The Character of Our Country felt like the 2004 convention speech fused with the recent eulogy for Senator Kennedy. Many of those who would be the best foot soldiers in taking supporting action – and by action I mean exactly what Al Giordano wrote last Friday in “Want Health Care? Go Door to Door or You Won’t Get It” – have this one final window of energy to latch onto and keep the momentum going, but Obama has to do his part and own the narrative every day.
Lincoln may share with Obama the capacity of “better angels” appeal, but he was also willing to go to war.