How to Talk Like Barack Obama
By Bernie Horn
February 25, 2009 - 12:17pm ET
Barack Obama’s address to Congress last night was amazing. No President has been so good on television since John F. Kennedy. Yes, Bill Clinton was and is a great speaker, but his charisma works best in a live appearance. And yes, Ronald Reagan was a “great communicator,” but he was pretty obviously an actor performing his lines. Marshall McLuhan taught us that television is a “cool” medium, and Obama fits it perfectly.
One can’t teach how to be Obama on television, but there are some lessons we can learn from watching him.
Talk to persuadables, not partisans. Most Americans have their minds made up about the President and his policies. Most are either partisan Democrats or Republicans. Nothing that Barack Obama said was going to change that—he can’t win over the strong conservatives and he won’t lose the strong progressives. Only a minority of Americans can be persuaded to join one side or the other, and those are the people who President Obama was addressing.
The President is not afraid of saying things that he knows might offend some progressives, for example, about American exceptionalism (“the hardest-working people on Earth”); the size of government (“Not because I believe in bigger government—I don’t”); and possible cuts in Social Security (“To preserve our long-term fiscal health, we must also address the growing costs in Medicare and Social Security”).
And he’s certainly not afraid of offending conservatives, for example, attacking deregulation and tax cuts for the rich (“A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market”); decrying Bush Administration deficits (“mindful of the massive debt we’ve inherited”); and strongly defending the economic recovery legislation that was supported by only three Republicans in the entire Congress.
All of the President’s language was aimed at the middle, the persuadable voters in America.
Remain open to bipartisanship. Remember, the persuadable voters are persuadable because they are not partisans. When a political figure appeals across partisan lines, s/he is talking directly to those Americans who make the difference between popularity and unpopularity, and who don’t really understand the point of partisanship (the way we do). That’s the purpose of this paragraph:
I know that we haven't agreed on every issue thus far, and there are surely times in the future when we will part ways. But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed. That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months, and where we return after those debates are done. That is the foundation on which the American people expect us to build common ground.
It doesn’t really matter whether Republicans in Congress appreciate the President’s kind words. He is talking to the persuadables, not to Congress. (Remember, while Americans want our leaders to be open to bipartisanship, that doesn't mean they want progressives to compromise the values that voters endorsed in the last election.)
Make it clear that you’re on the side of the audience. There’s only one real message in politics: “I’m on your side.” Persuadable voters aren’t interested in policy details. They’re ready to trust elected officials to do the right thing if they feel the officials are truly on their side.
That’s why the President repeatedly talked about accountability, in spending taxpayer dollars, (“I have told each member of my Cabinet as well as mayors and governors across the country that they will be held accountable by me and the American people for every dollar they spend”); in his mortgage plan (“It's a plan that won't help speculators or that neighbor down the street who bought a house he could never hope to afford”); and his financial recovery plan (“I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive” and “CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over”).
Obama also explained that he was on the side of average Americans with his tax cuts (“Because of this plan, 95% of the working households in America will receive a tax cut—a tax cut that you will see in your paychecks beginning on April 1st); his lending program (“First, we are creating a new lending fund that represents the largest effort ever to help provide auto loans, college loans, and small business loans to the consumers and entrepreneurs who keep this economy running”); and that was the emphasis in his three big initiatives: energy, health care, and education.
Give them hope. You already knew that Barack Obama believes in hope. You may recall that President Clinton was the Man from Hope. And if you saw the movie “Milk,” you know that other talented political leaders have understood the power of hope.
Obama declared right up front that “We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.” He used a story and a face in the gallery to declare “We are not quitters.” And he ended with these words:
If we come together and lift this nation from the depths of this crisis; if we put our people back to work and restart the engine of our prosperity; if we confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit, then someday years from now our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved into this very chamber, "something worthy to be remembered.”
Over the past 8 years, we progressives have had plenty of reason to sound pessimistic about our nation. But we’ve turned the page, and besides, American voters have a limited tolerance for pessimism. They want to hear that we know how to fix public policy, and we’re confident we can do the job. As pollster Celinda Lake puts it, “In American politics, the optimist has always won.” As our President has made clear, it’s time to give them hope—and then deliver hopeful results.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and author of the recent book, Framing the Future: How Progressive Values Can Win Elections and Influence People.
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Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future