Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It's the tone that's changed - not the policies

Narratives in politics are interesting to observe. And we certainly have one developing right now. I wish I had a nickel for every time I've read this morning that - for once - President Obama didn't pre-compromise his position. Here's how the New York Times editorial board put it.

This time, President Obama did not compromise with himself beforehand, or put out a half measure in hopes of luring nonexistent Republican support.

It's a convenient narrative if you're looking for a way to craft the last 3 years in national politics under the roof of one man's responsibility and generalize that everything that's happened has come from one script played out over and over again. But it doesn't work so well when you ask these folks to talk through a specific example.

The most obvious way it doesn't work is if you take what President Obama has proposed over the last couple of weeks and suggest its a policy break from anything he's been proposing over the last year. For example, when it comes to deficit reduction, here's what he said in his State of the Union this year.

And if we truly care about our deficit, we simply can’t afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Before we take money away from our schools or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break. It’s not a matter of punishing their success. It’s about promoting America’s success.

When it comes to jobs and economic recovery, need I remind you that the theme of that whole speech was about investments in innovation, education, and infrastructure? Sound familiar?

These same themes were contained in the deficit reduction speech he gave in April - including the idea that we need to reform programs like Medicare and Medicaid while protecting beneficiaries. Here's how he described his fourth step in deficit reduction.

The fourth step in our approach is to reduce spending in the tax code, so-called tax expenditures. In December, I agreed to extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans because it was the only way I could prevent a tax hike on middle-class Americans. But we cannot afford $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for every millionaire and billionaire in our society. We can’t afford it. And I refuse to renew them again.

And did folks miss that the whole reason we went to the brink of not raising the debt ceiling was because President Obama and the Democrats insisted on tax increases as part of the deal?

So whether its about job creation or deficit reduction, I don't see anything in what President Obama has proposed over the last couple of weeks that's different from what he's been saying all along when it comes to specific policies.

But there's something that has changed. Here's how the NYT talked about it:

And this time, standing in the Rose Garden on Monday, he seemed to speak directly to a public that has been parched for farsighted leadership in Washington.

And watch how Dana Milbank pivots to the heart of the matter.

At last, the president hasn’t conceded the race before the starter’s gun, hasn’t opened the bidding with his bottom line, hasn’t begun a game of strip poker in his boxer shorts. Whichever metaphor you choose, it was refreshing to see the president in the Rose Garden on Monday morning delivering a speech that, for once, appealed to the heart rather than the cerebrum.

Yes, its that second sentence that captures the reality much more than the first. I'd suggest that all of these folks are responding to the way President Obama is talking rather than the specifics of what he's saying.

You can come up with all kinds of reasons for why he's changed his rhetorical tone. It could be because he recognized that how he'd been talking wasn't working. Or it could be that he no longer considers members of Congress to be his target audience and now assumes its all directed at the American public. In line with the later, it also could be that he's switched from governing to campaign mode.

Regardless of why, I suspect we all welcome the change (which I would actually date back to some of his press conferences during the debt ceiling negotiations). But lets just be clear about what has changed and what hasn't. We are obviously still a sound-bite nation. Folks love the "its not about class war - its about math" kind of rhetoric. It's a pretty good thing that this President can pull that one off too.


  1. I've gritted my teeth a few times over the last 24 hours as the usual suspects have all come out with their variation of, "At last he's doing what we've told him he should have been doing all along!"

    It's asinine to suggest that Obama is as politically naive as these comments make him out to be. But at this point we need as many people on board as we can get and if some of them need to delude themselves into thinking they've saved Obama from himself then I'm fine with that delusion.

  2. Chris - You've articulated my feelings well.

    I'd just add that when I get frustrated about it all, I'm trying to remind myself that its really all about an ego thing to want to take credit. If that's what folks need to help them get on board - I'll live with it.

    The only problem is that since Obama has not really done anything but pivot on his rhetoric, they're bound to get discouraged again. They'll be wailing again soon enough. Let's just hope that its not until after the 2012 election.

  3. It continues to amaze me how the political pundits have no idea what they're talking about. For the record, Obama has been talking about reducing the deficit since he took office.

    Perhaps we need to remind the MSM about the Fiscal Responsibility Summit he hosted at the White House in February 2009.

    That's right, just a few weeks after being inaugurated, Obama was already talking about the deficit. Of course, that's well-before the Republicans and MSM started whining about it.



    Once again Obama continues to be leaps ahead of his political opponents and the idiots on TV.

    I can only imagine how better off the country would be if we could get rid of the "analysts" who get paid to do nothing more than spew "conservative talking points" for a living.

  4. adjouir - Great catch on the summit! Thanks so much.

    You remind me that often when PBO made the case for health care reform - a bit part of the reason was the long-term costs to individuals, businesses, AND the government.