He told his story at the Democratic Convention in 2004 and became a national figure. This story, supplemented by his two books and some other good speeches, and Barack Obama became President. Too simple an account, surely, but Obama’s storytelling has been a key part of his political ascent. He was elected as “The Storyteller in Chief.”
This has led to some frustration. He can’t talk our way out of a major economic crisis, and he has had difficulty convincing his opponents and the general public that a balanced budget is not a rational answer to a severe financial crisis and deep economic recession. Further, he can’t convince real enemies abroad to accept American priorities, although he has improved attitudes towards our country around the world. And even more politically damaging, he can’t convince his political opposition to work with him, when they calculate that it is not in their narrowly conceived interests. Producing meaningful bipartisan legislation is a goal, but practical political calculation can and has stood in the way.
Now, the Story Teller is fighting back on the campaign trail. The fight started in a speech on Labor Day in Milwaukee presenting his basic themes, as I analyzed in an earlier post. Obama then extended the themes to specific circumstances, starting by going down the road a bit to Madison, Wisconsin, also analyzed here. He has since traveled from coast to coast delivering the message he introduced in the Wisconsin speeches. As he gives each speech, he is attempting to rally the troops, to energize his base, but he is also presenting different elements of his understanding of the political situation and his political vision and policy actions, telling the story of the last two years as he understands and feels about it, setting the terms of our politics for the next two.
The general theme: he dispassionately explains that when he became President Americans faced a severe crisis. He had thought and hoped that the Republicans and Democrats in Washington would work together to address this crisis. But the Republicans decided to play crass politics. As Obama put it in his speech of October 7th at Bowie State University, in Maryland:
They knew it would take more than a couple of years to climb out of this unbelievable recession that they had created. They knew that by the time the midterm rolled around that people would still be out of work; that people would still be frustrated. And they figured that if we just sat on the sidelines and opposed every idea, every compromise that I offered, if they spent all their time attacking Democrats instead of attacking problems that, somehow, they would prosper at the polls.
So they spent the last 20 months saying no – even to policies that they’d supported in the past. No, to middle class tax cuts. No, to help for small businesses. No, to a bipartisan deficit reduction commission that they had once sponsored. I said yes; they said no. I’m pretty sure if I said the sky was blue, they’d say no. (Laughter.) If I said there are fish in the sea, they’d say no. See, their calculation was if Obama fails, then we win.
But, he goes on: he and the Democrats persevered and accomplished a lot, despite the almost complete Republican negativity, highlighting how the accomplishments have been realized for his audience.
In each speech, he addresses special concerns of his audience and tries to support local candidates. Most news reports have focused on whether or not candidates appear with him and how well or poorly his speeches are firing up the base and potentially bettering the prospects of the Democratic Party in maintaining control of Congress. The general consensus: despite Obama’s efforts they almost certainly will lose the House, while having a good chance to maintain control of the Senate. I have no reason to doubt this, but I think there is more involved.
Missing in the analysis is an attempt to actually understand what the campaign is about and how it is connected to the Obama Presidency. It’s there in the words. The live audiences hear it, but not those reading newspapers and watching television. The variations on the major theme of the stump speech reveal Obama and his fellow Democrats principles, positions and achievements. While the Republicans, from its Tea Party Wing to its more mainstream versions, are sticking to their theme of the last thirty years, the government is not the solution but the problem, clearly revealed in the much ridiculed “Pledge to America” (which has been quickly forgotten), the Democrats, and Obama most clearly, argue that good government can make a crucial difference.
Here in Maryland, you know, understand, how important education is to our economy, how important it is to our future. Martin O’Malley knows that, too. His opponent raised college tuition in this state by 40 percent when he was in charge. This is at a time when the economy was doing better. Now, even in the toughest of times, over the last two years, Martin O’Malley froze in-state tuition, so he kept the cost of this school and other schools affordable for Maryland’s families. (Applause.) And thanks to his unprecedented investment in Maryland’s education, as I said before, you’ve been ranked the best when it comes to public schools the last two years in a row. That’s what Martin O’Malley does. (Applause.) He walks the walk, doesn’t just talk the talk.
When he campaigned for the Presidency, Obama emphasized the need to reform and support education. As he has governed, this has been a major project, a key component of his stimulus package, but recognized by conservatives, such as David Brooks, as well as liberals as a significant effort. Now Obama is supporting the Democratic Governor of Maryland on this accomplishment. Good government can improve things. It has improved educational opportunities and achievements.
And it has done more, which Obama has been emphasizing in his speeches around the country, which I will analyze in my next post.