Do Good Speeches Make Great History?

The Half Loaf of Reform is Shrinking

Obama offered a masterly centrist performance, elegantly cutting the loaf in half, then refining his cut. He was clear and workmanlike, and he finally owned HIS plan. I am not surprised mainstream Democrats like Paul Begala went gaga over the speech: to expect any risk-taking from this president is naïve, even crazy-making. I still see half a loaf of health reform, shrinking daily.

Perhaps Dan Froomkin is right, here was “a turning point for Obama.” And yet I ask, “Turning from what to what? Risking what political capital for what genuine improvements”? Wanting to be the last president to face health care reform is a good line, but where were new rhetorical levers, new, powerful “frames” for the “passing the bill” stage – stirring, memorable catch phrases that both neutralize rightwing noise and shift public opinion? Please list any I missed last night.

Too much remains ungrounded, aside from Froomkin’s critical reminder, “any explanation of what [Obama’s] been up to in his backroom deals with health industry titans . . . until he addresses this issue full-on, the man continues to have a not inconsiderable credibility problem.” Where was one breakthrough idea, one blatant ice-breaker, far more compelling than vague medical “exchanges,” echoing discredited co-op notions? Thus, I can’t see what others assert – a home run, grand slam game-changer. Let’s call it a ground rule double by a gifted speechmaker doing what he does well: corral the community and begin organizing.

Myth Major Reform Can Be Bi-Partisan

Did I miss, amongst so much Obama clarity, a reasonable explanation of real engines to resolve the number one issue for all those with health insurance: how to restrain booming costs? Obama still sounds like the non-partisan centrist president acting like health reform (think Medicare) can not be partisan; it’s empty symbolism to invoke nominal band-aids (like McCain’s backwater notion on catastrophic coverage). Further, will half the country who no longer trusts Obama’s word believe his pledge against increasing the deficit at all? Why believe Medicare won’t somehow be impacted? I don’t believe any official, honest or not, can know major consequences, intended or not, in five years. Frankly, Obama hasn’t kept huge campaign pledges made less than a year ago, so it’s pointless to make pointless guarantees.

More specifically, evoking George Lakoff’s paradigms,

1) where were any new, powerful “frames” to allow liberal or progressive voters to press their spineless Democratic representatives? Single-payer was already lost, now we must likely forego a strong public option – off the table and not put back on last night. I especially resented millions of rational, caring progressives being mechanically equated, as if a fringe, with blockading idiots on “the right.” That was insulting – since WE helped elect this smart, non-ideologue while extremists called him terrorist, unAmerican, and worse.

2) further, what Obama arguments in fact countered rightwing fictions (government takeover, even death panels)? It’s not enough to call opponents liars, or deny misrepresentation; you must explain how essential “panels” will work and how to avoid abuse. Obama should have explained every big system needs oversight by medical experts – not bureaucrats. You can’t use public money for every imaginable surgery or test. The issue is not whether there are panels, which exist now (a point Obama missed), but how they work. On all extremist hot buttons, I heard little other than a warmed over, refined Obama politics as usual.

3) what about the president’s endless courtesy to incorrigible Republicans who aren’t listening? Is this a winning strategy? Is a lack of GOP support the reason no bill has passed the House? Hardly. Why not target Blue Dog Democrats with more of what Obama did towards the end, declaring a national moral imperative? Why not say to all, “Join us, or like GOP dinosaurs against Medicare, get cemented on the wrong side of history?” When does Obama learn to frame fights in Democratic Party terms, in language that answers and berates all obstacles to reform, wingnuts or not, today and tomorrow and in 2010?

Master Campaigner not yet Masterful Icon

Distressingly, I have yet to observe Obama’s mastery of the larger political narrative, especially sensitive to moderate public opinion vulnerable to rightwing smears. Few expected the president to make a case for revolutionary, even comprehensive health reform, but what about providing compelling, defining terms that show why Democrats are trustworthy and Republicans are out of the mainstream, even deranged and mean-spirited? This is not a hard case to make, and if Democrats expect to dominate after 2010, they better learn to come together, in sync with coherent leadership. They also need stronger, memorable, persuasive frames and headlines.

The big issue remains, “Who are the Democrats, what is the party’s character, and what is the bottom line for this ‘reform’ president? Are they a team with focus – or just a divided multitude under the misleading tent?” When does leadership start twisting Blue Dog arms in earnest? Neither the president’s speech, nor the absent reports today from either House Blue Dogs or conservative Democratic senators indicate any changed votes. Where’s the follow through and momentum in any PR success? If not, that means a watered down, diluted, perhaps ultimately ineffective health reform bill. Wouldn’t that epitomize much ado about next to nothing?

Robert S. Becker was educated at Rutgers College (BA) and UC Berkeley (Ph.D, English). He left university teaching (Northwestern, U. Chicago) for business, founding and heading SOTA Industries, high end audio company from '80 to '92. "Writing for the public taught me how to communicate." From '92-02 he did marketing consulting, grant, and business writing. Since '02, he scribbles on politics, science and culture, looking for the wit in the shadows. Read other articles by Robert.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. balkas b b said on September 12th, 2009 at 2:57pm #

    WHAAAAT??? Says uncle sam! Best country in the world. With best opportunities, best governance, and gov’ts and you want s’mthing for nothing?
    How dare you insult our sacred constitution that guarantees equality to each citizen in each endeavor? You lazy bones! Stop being lazy and go and look after yourself and stand up like a citizen worthy of our holy constitution and system of governance or move to ….!!! tnx

  2. John Little said on September 14th, 2009 at 12:40am #

    The Democrats are Republican Lite.

    The same big pharma, big oil, bit MIC and big business that bought the Republicans also paid for the Democrats. They had to. But they only had to buy two parties and, it turns out, for pennies on the dollar. For a few measly millions, they get billions in return. That gravy train will continue its nonstop tour until enough Americans are either dead or unwilling to continue.

    And that doesn’t appear to be the case for a long time.