At the Denver convention, Sen. Barack Obama gave a very fine acceptance speech, but not a great one. His speech after winning the Iowa caucuses lifted you up and carried you along with the historical significance of the moment: “They said, this day would never come. They said…. But you said….” Goosebumps.
This speech felt programmed to hit all the right buttons: he introduced himself to those who didn’t know him, he connected to the plight of the undecided working class voter, he talked tough against McCain and he turned many good phrases along the way. But he did not sound a memorable theme, like Kennedy’s “New Frontier.”
Not only did he fail to name his vision, he failed to crystallize the change he stands for in a few key phrases that could be repeated, emphasized, and imbued with meaning by his supporters, by others running for office, by all of us with an undecided Uncle Fred.
In less than 20 words, he could have done it.
Paul Waldman, in The American Prospect, hoped he would. David Sirota proclaimed that Obama’s speech “(finally) signaled that progressive economic populism is going to be the central thrust” of his campaign. Too abstract. How do you explain economic populism in a short elevator ride?
To win, progressives must go beyond personality and empathy. They must clearly—and extremely briefly—state the case for progressive reform. What we will get if progressive-minded candidates take the White House and a 60-vote majority in the Senate?
Distilled from his acceptance speech, this is what I believe Obama is telling us he stands for:
- Rebuild middle-class America
- Universal health care
- Clean energy
- Respect our diversity
- Smart government
- Humane foreign policy
Rebuild middle-class America. Talking about how “we measure progress” in America, Obama spoke of “an economy that honors the dignity of work.” He defined the American promise: “through hard work and sacrifice, each of us can pursue our individual dreams but still come together as one American family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams as well.” The threats to this promise reside in the class stratification that has imperiled the well-being of most Americans and worsened under eight years of Republican rule and neglect, causing us to watch “a major American city drown before our eyes.” Obama wants to restore dignity and prosperity to the middle class, and help the poor climb up into it. He cited specific ways to accomplish that: cutting taxes for 95% of working families, giving our children a world-class education, equal pay for equal work.
Universal health care. Senator Obama called for “affordable, accessible health care for every single American.” There is no doubt, this is a popular Democratic reform promised by the Clintons in 1992 and still unfulfilled. It will take a Democratic president, a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, and a huge grassroots effort to do this, but it must be done.
Clean energy. This short phrase stands for what must be our top environmental priority if we have any hope to stop global warming and climate change. Obama spoke of a 10-year investment in “affordable, renewable sources of energy” (not quite as bold or explicit as Al Gore’s challenge). He said that drilling is a stopgap measure (but he didn’t say whether he would or wouldn’t drill or where). And he wants to “safely harness nuclear power” (doesn’t that make you a little nervous?) Despite these equivocations, there is no doubt that human abuse of the Earth’s biosphere is likely to cause an environmental crisis within the next eight years, and the new president will have to rise to meet it.
Respect our diversity. Obama barely mentioned race in his speech, and he didn’t need to. Throughout the talk, there was an awareness that America needs to achieve a level of tolerance and inclusiveness that it has not yet. He spoke of the “the obligation to treat each other with dignity and respect,” and repeated the sense of unity in the American promise, “the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper.” On social issues, such as choice, gay marriage, and guns, he seemed to speak of making compromises, finding the “strength and grace to bridge divides.” Let’s hope that means official government respect for our diversity, allowing women reproductive choice and everyone freedom to marry the love of one’s life.
Smart government. I liked hearing him say, “Our government should work for us, not against us.” The things our government does are so frequently and obviously stupid that we have become schizophrenic patriots–we love our country but hate our government, the only one we have. We complain but we don’t fix it. It’s time we did. Replacing the big-business dominated party in power gives us our best chance.
Humane foreign policy. As expected, Senator Obama said that he would “never hesitate to defend this nation” and would only send troops into combat with “a clear mission.” He also spoke of restoring a legacy of American leadership and moral standing in the world. He intends to use “tough, direct diplomacy” and “build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease.” We have more musicians in our military bands than diplomats in the State Department, as Nick Kristof has said. Pursuing a humane, intelligent, culturally-literate foreign policy would be the best thing Obama could do for our national security.
For the last two years, many of us have been working on our elevator pitch, the essential elements of the progressive vision, reduced to as few words as possible.
Linguist George Lakoff pointed out that a strength of the conservative Republican ascendancy was its ability to communicate its political case in five short phrases: lower taxes, less government, strong defense, free markets, and family values.
Professor Lakoff’s own nomination for a ten-word philosophy was: “stronger America, broad prosperity, better future, effective government, mutual responsibility.” One reporter called these the least objectionable words in American life.
Recently, Bernie Horn at OurFuture.org offered these twelve words as progressive principles consistent with the 2008 Democratic platform: fair wages, fair markets, health security, retirement security, equal justice for all. All related to economic justice in some way, but ignoring the environment and international relations.
In 2006, in a piece on progressive political philosophy on the Washington Monthly website, I proposed these five principles: one America, wise use of force, stewardship of the Earth, culture of respect, smart government. I still like them, but the reality in 2008 is that the phrasing needs to match the issues and debates of the day and tie as directly as possible to the campaign of the most progressive candidate for president.
We are not asking for the best slogans that Madison Avenue admen can contrive. Just simple words that name the reforms we need. A short sword for the foot soldiers of the progressive movement to use in everyday conversation.
So, I urge Obama and his speechwriters, at the next opportunity, to articulate the essence of what he stands for in as few words as possible. I suggest “rebuild middle-class America, universal health care, clean energy, respect our diversity, smart government, and humane foreign policy.” If they can say it better, I hope they will.
Greg Colvin is a San Francisco nonprofit lawyer who also writes political philosophy and hikes the Pacific Crest Trail with his sons.