Obama should study Reagan

by Justin

Change and hope. Those words, the ones Americans so desperately wanted to hear in the oblivion of Bush’s second term, dominated Obama’s nearly immaculate campaign and became symbols of a new era. The timing of Obama’s ascendancy couldn’t have been better, really. The old guard had failed miserably at leading, American’s were disenchanted with the GOP and wanted a radical shift. By and large, you know. Democrats and liberals were, of course, going to dodge any Republican candidate. But Obama tapped into the independents and the more moderate republicans. Running a black candidate was a serious gamble, but that was the moment. And Obama seized the hell out of it. Then what happened?

Okay, so we go into his presidency with impossible expectations. Absolutely unrealistic. I wrote about this before, about the inevitable meeting of his idealism and the labyrinth of politics – how liberals should have seen it coming and should take his stumbles and compromises with a grain of salt.

That said, Obama’s proven himself to be a remarkable legislator – by which I mean he is unafraid to force through a piece of legislation that he and the Democratic party believe in. Financial Regulation just passed, HCR squeezed through (less popularly), the stimulus made it, blah blah blah. Everyone knows the story of his successes.

Though the framing of success doesn’t quite hold, especially given that President Obama is responsible for more change than any Democrat in 40 years. The landscape remains polarized. This comes down to a few simple truths about our partisan government. First, the unprecedented obstructionism of the Republican Party, their absolute refusal to embrace policy over politics, their industry-owned agendas and rampant selfishness, results in a ceaseless battle in Washington. One that Obama can’t seem to win by any measure of diplomacy or multi-party summits or anything like that. There’s extreme pigheadedness out there. And unfortunately, the economic and international landscapes inherited by Mr. Obama provide the brilliant spin doctors in the GOP with all the ammunition they need to paint him as a crippling socialist and enemy to prosperity.

And that leads me to the surprising failure of Obama – why he’s a poor politician and in many ways his own worst advocate. At some point in the past year the president lost his ability to speak with passion, to speak plainly, to inspire supporters and cynics alike. It owes much to his dedication to a very considered and deliberate approach to any speech – to the explanation of new game-changing legislation, and significantly to his treatment of the American Dream destroying GOP.

What does the GOP have to use against Obama? The economy. Inherited. 100%. The stimulus hasn’t turned things around suddenly and beautifully, but that’s hardly his fault. This ship is way too big to turn around on a dime. They constantly reference the unemployment rate, but consistently block the extension of unemployment benefits because it will drive up government spending. Here we hit a great opportunity for even the least savvy politician to paint the GOP as a villain to the common man.

First off, that spending could be offset by letting the Bush tax cuts expire (they’re due to do just that). The short of it is that those people making over $250,000 would pay 39% as opposed to the current 34% – that means a lot more money for the government. Because these are the people that have tons of money, that extra 5% adds up quickly. The Republicans are, however, losing their minds demanding that the tax cut stays active. But this is precisely the sort of offset demanded by the Republicans pulling unemployment pay from over one million Americans. And no matter what they say, this isn’t the invention of a new increase in taxes. It’s the expiration of an unnecessary and elitist tax credit for the rich.

Our president, unfortunately, dedicates himself to taking the high road. He won’t come out and say that the GOP acts exclusively in the interest of the politicians and their corporate backers. How can the tea-party, which won so much early momentum from the suddenly unemployed, embrace a political agenda that would have them stay penniless and the pockets of the rich continue to swell? Call them out on it. You need a sentence, maybe two, to be rallying cry against the Republicans.

Here’s the thing. Obama isn’t a socialist. By no stretch of the imagination or the definition of that word. But that doesn’t stop the GOP from making headlines out of that conviction. Who cares that his policies are in line with Medicare and Social Security, now essential and popular to the extreme majority of Americans? They don’t mind lying. They’ll embrace insane hyperbole. Americans, to what should be no one’s surprise, by and large are lazy. Many of us don’t want to think and deconstruct policies, don’t want to challenge the simple declarations of the loudest voices. So the GOP screams Obama=Marxist, Obama=Big Government, Obama=Debt! And the idiots eat it up.

Why doesn’t Obama retaliate with GOP=Corporate Greed, GOP=Obstructionism, GOP=The Oblivious Rich? Say it. He doesn’t even have to lie and exaggerate the way the Republicans do. It’s right there in front of him!

And this is the failure of Obama. His inability to galvanize the public no matter how great his legacy may end up being will tarnish his memory for Americans. The Republicans are insane and out of touch. Let people know.

I drove up to New York from North Carolina a few days ago and spent a chunk of the drive listening to President Reagan’s speeches. A week earlier I’d heard a snippet of a Reagan address on NPR and I was blown away by the quality of his voice and the directness of his speaking. It was like hearing the father I’d always dreamed of tell me the secrets of American greatness that were built into my soul since before my birth. Reagan’s gifts at oration are no secret, but are swept up for much of today’s liberal youth in their fundamental disagreements with his policies. This is lazy thinking, by and large, and it means missing out on his true genius. Reagan will go down in history as the architect of our victory in the Cold War and as the president that made Americans proud to be members of this great nation. The economic devastation and horrific deficit? Too complicated. His gross negligence during the AIDS crisis? Nah, too uncomfortable.

People chalk his charisma, his disarming ability to open with a joke up to his training as an actor. And that may be partially true, but it leads his critics to embrace a belief that Reagan was a skilled liar. He wasn’t. There’s great truth and great conviction in his words, a great belief in the foundational dreams of America.

And look, the more I review the content of speeches like the magnificent and dangerous Evil Empire address to the Evangelical Society the more I disagree actively with his opinions. He’s wrong about so many things, ignorant and old-fashioned on others, selective and preferential on still more. But when I listened, my inclination was to believe every word and follow President Reagan into the abyss should he ask it of me. This had less to do with the choice in words as it did with the method of delivery. There’s something so candid and personal, so confident and direct in his way of speaking.

But Obama presents like a professor. Haltingly, with pauses enough to forget the beginning of the statement, and with too even a cadence for the punchlines to ever sting. It all sounds the same. That lecture quality invites cynicism and debate; it puts a degree of remove between the president and the common man. Sure, the well-educated minority follows it all well enough and can appreciate the considered content, the righteous and progressive vision for the future. But to the reluctant masses swept up in GOP-led hysteria, Obama reinforces the image of an elitist Democrat dictating from on high so often invoked by President Reagan as the way not to be. He never seems in touch.

Reagan sometimes spoke as if he was speaking to children, with the humility of a father with great experience and the subsequent awareness that he has much to learn. The paternal tone worked, in large part because Reagan was old enough to be most Americans’ grandfather. Obama is young. Perhaps he should use that to address as comrades and brothers, individuals close to him and excited to be brought into his confidence.

Acting lessons, maybe. Something to break the fractious fourth wall erected each time he steps up to the pulpit or looks into the camera. He’s got all the material needed to be dramatic and inspiring and more rhetorical skill than any president since Lincoln, but his charm vanishes in a professorial haze. He’s an effective president, most definitely. But I don’t think most Americans realize that. Even progressives second-guess his work because he refuses to be his own champion and to meet the GOP in their filthy, mud-slinging trenches.

I want Obama to be great. I want the Republican Party to fade into obscurity as a relic of a misguided era of corporate leadership and manipulation. Obama’s proven that he can lead the democrats in Washington and push change through the bureaucratic channels – but he hasn’t proven that he can lead the common American or shown his face in a compassionate enough light to convert any cynics. That should be his agenda now that FinReg passed. Tragic as it is, the liberal high road won’t play in a political climate of obstructionist enmity with opponents that have a shaky-at-best grasp of the truth. On that front, our man could learn from his enemies today and from Reagan’s ability to tap into the American spirit.

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