Depending on your perspective (and/or tolerance for slow-pitch softball), there is either much or little to take away from Wednesday’s presidential charm assault on the professional left. I am actually a bit gobsmacked by much of what I saw on The Daily Show and read in the transcript of Obama’s meeting with the five bloggers who found golden tickets in their Wonka bars. The fact that the president still can’t give a compelling “elevator speech” about his sometimes-touted health insurance reform–amazing. Saying his ballyhooed “change you can believe in” can’t happen overnight–after 20 months in office–unbelievable. Refusing to give his opinion on whether or not “don’t ask, don’t tell” is unconstitutional because he is “not sitting on the Supreme Court”–wtf?
For the moment, however, I want to highlight this short passage from the prog-blogger confab:
But I don’t go into the next two years assuming that there’s just going to be gridlock. We’re going to keep on working to make sure that we can get as much done as possible because folks are hurting out there. What they’re looking for is help on jobs, help on keeping their homes, help on sending their kids to college. And if I can find ways for us to work with Republicans to advance those issues, then that’s going to be my priority.
What’s going to be your priority, exactly?
I suppose I should take it as a baby step that Obama acknowledges there is still a hydra-headed economic crisis out there, but that’s kind of the price of White House admission as far as I’m concerned. And that the president can’t find it in his rhetorical rucksack to explicitly promise help and lay out a series of concrete actions that he will undertake—on the eve of a crucial midterm election, no less—negates any credit he might get for recognizing the problem. “Working to make sure that we can get as much done as possible” doesn’t communicate anything resembling fierce urgency. It is the kind of verbal tap dance that has me wondering what’s behind the ineloquent words, leaving me to choose between cowardice and connivance.
But it is that last sentence that is either most ineloquent or the most telling. “If I can find ways for us to work with Republicans to advance those issues, then that’s going to be my priority.” What’s the priority? Because to me it sounds like his priority is finding ways to work with Republicans more than it is to “advance those issues,” however weak-willed that phrasing already seems.
And what if Republicans don’t want to play—because they have made it very clear that they don’t—then what? What if the president can’t find a way to work with what will certainly be a more Republican Congress—does that mean that joblessness and the foreclosure fraud crisis will not be his priority? Because, seriously, if it is not my first interpretation, it has to be the second.
Obama’s 2008 electoral success, like all success, had many mothers, but one of the reasons he was able to take the country by storm was his ability to build a compelling narrative. “Change we can believe in,” “The fierce urgency of now,” and the phrase that Jon Stewart kept coming back to, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” helped candidate Obama tell a story about what President Obama’s America would look like. And it was a persuasive story. “Working to make sure that we can get as much done as possible. . . if I can find ways for us to work with Republicans” is not.
In his own defense, the president sometimes likes to quote former New York Governor Mario Cuomo: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” So be it. But even as prose, the aggregate of Obama’s day of talking to the left falls flat. Perhaps he failed to grasp the metaphor, so I will explain: the prose, Mr. President, is not just words. Your problems with a broken process is not a story jobless, homeless, or just plain insecure Americans need to hear right now. Governing is doing, and the story is told in good jobs, mortgage modification, and real relief in the face of rising health care costs. To Wednesday’s intended audience, it might be told by closing Guantanamo and trying any remaining detainees in civilian courts, by prosecuting Americans that used torture, defrauded the federal government or lied to Congress, and by immediately halting military discharges resulting from “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
What the president cannot seem to grasp is that people now hear his words—poetry or prose—in the context of their lives. And when Obama tells his one-time supporters that he has gotten 90 percent of what he wanted, those people have to wonder if what the president wants and what they want is still (or was ever) the same thing.
That is not a question Democrats want voters asking six days before the midterms.