Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day sales: Obama, the Dems and the GOP

Labor Day — the traditional day of celebration of the American worker — must seem like a bad and hollow joke to the roughly 11 million Americans who can’t find labor on this or any other damn day in the year. This year, Labor Day falls less than two months before the midterm congressional elections that will, rightly or wrongly, be seen as a referendum on the Obama White House and its agenda vis-à-vis unemployment in America.

Since taking office those 20 long months ago, President Obama (with the help of determined Democrats in Congress) has performed the equivalent of zero-gravity brain surgery with one hand tied behind his back, partly because of his own missteps and those of the administration, but largely because of a fundamentally antagonistic Republican leadership arrayed against him for reasons that have less to do with policy than with obstinacy for its own sake.

That’s not necessarily a partisan assessment. “It’s a real phenomenon,” said Steven Smith, a public affairs professor at Washington University. “There’s a very credible claim that in this Congress and the last Congress, the minority party very deliberately slowed down legislation to make it difficult for the majority to appear to be governing effectively, and knew perfectly well that [while] some legislation would get enacted, the total volume of legislation that would eventually get enacted would be undercut.”

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Smith said this at a D.C. symposium on Obama and the Congressional Democrats on Sept. 2, but people have been saying that for months around the watercooler (if they happen to be where watercoolers are commonly used). Rank and file Americans, restless and angry as they are, recognize intellectually what the 44th president of the United States has done in record time. Back in March, my partner in lines Kevin Broughton at Brown Man Thinking Hard took the time to put together a list of 100 of the signal accomplishments of the Obama White House.

You can quibble about the specifics; what’s undeniable is the breadth of enacted legislation and executive orders by Team Obama. It’s doubtful there’s been such a succession of transformational achievements by a single administration since the flurry of changes ushered in during the early years of the Lyndon Johnson era.

But despite it all, President Obama faces the uphill climb expected of all presidents approaching the halfway point in their first term. For the most consummate communicator of American political vision certainly since Clinton and arguably since Reagan, what’s left in the next 57 days is nothing less than salesmanship. And there’s really no parallel for it in pop culture; save your references to Willie Stark from “All the King’s Men” or Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.”

For the first time both for independent voters and moderates in the Republican ranks, and for the once hardcore but lately dispirited supporters who swept him to victory in 2008, President Obama is in the sales business — not just pitching what he intends to do, but also reannouncing his party’s brand and its accomplishments, what they’ve already done.

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The Democrats are hunkering down with various ideas, most of them very good, on how to win the message war. Democratic good-wrench Chris Kofinis observed last week in Politico: “Our message needs to be more positive, more hopeful, more focused ... talk to the economic reality of everyday Americans and their families.”

Leave it to one of Obama old hands to put things in broader perspective. Addressing the sky-is-falling forecasts of big Dem losses in the House and possibly the Senate, Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “we won so many elections in 2006 and 2008, even in a neutral electoral environment, it was clear we were going to give some of that back.”

Plouffe’s somewhat anodyne view endorses the idea of a tidal political gravity at work, and that’s part of it. But it’s clear that the Obama White House — its force scattered by a number of planned domestic initiatives, unexpected domestic incidents and tragic global inheritances — has been challenged on the messaging front. Whether it’s with more of a presence on Facebook or Twitter, or by making more use of the ultimate IM — addresses from the Oval Office or news conferences from the East Room — the president needs to more fully use the bully pulpit for that which it was intended.

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To go by his rousing speech today at a labor union rally in Milwaukee, President Obama gets it. His barnburner talk with the party faithful shows he knows the importance of laying out the stakes in this election for the Democratic base — the same base that put him in the White House. And he knows how to go on offense (if a little late in doing it), reinforcing the ways that the “new Republican Party” proffered by Ohio Representative and tanning enthusiast John Boehner is same as the old.

“I know — I know! — that there are folks right here in this audience, folks right here in Milwaukee and all across America that are going through these kinds of struggles," the president said. "Eight million Americans lost their jobs in this recession. And even though we’ve had eight straight months of private-sector job growth, the new jobs haven’t been coming fast enough.

“I knew when I was running for office — and I certainly knew by the time I was sworn in — I knew it would take time to reverse the damage of a decade worth of policies that saw too few people being able to climb into the middle class, too many people falling behind. ... America cannot have a strong growing economy without a strong growing middle class. ...”

The whole address was exactly the kind of red-meat gauntlet throwdown the Democratic base has been waiting for. And it reframes the Democratic identity as a one to vote for, rather than to vote against. And the meme of Against is what the Republican Party stands for. And that’s where the GOP’s sales job begins.

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The Republican Party — publicly directed by party chairman in extremis absentia Michael Steele, but philosophically driven by political personality Sarah Palin, demagogue-in-chief Glenn Beck and talk-show pitbull and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh — has made much of Obama on defense, clucking about various polls that point to a White House in decline.

The GOP hailed the results of a recent Gallup poll that found Generic Republicans defeating Generic Democrats by 10 percentage points. Despite its Chicken Little aspect, such a poll is dependent on generalities for its impact, even when specifics (the Holy Grail of opinion polling) are very much available.

True enough, that Gallup poll gives a sobering snapshot of national discontent with the party in power at one moment in time. But the poll overlooks completely the fact that a party’s failure to perform as advertised doesn’t happen by itself. Come November, there’s another party with a big sales job to do. The Republican Party.

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Lately and willingly hijacked by the Tea Party axis of Sarah Limbeck, in a political variation on the Stockholm syndrome, the Republican Party is facing more of an existential dilemma than the Democrats. The rise of Tea Party-approved candidates like Rand Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Joe Miller in Alaska reveals the Tea Party’s problem paradox: The Tea Party’s only hope for survival is to become something other than the Tea Party.

The TP2010 virus can't survive for long when exposed to sunlight and heat (perhaps its two greatest enemies). It must find an agreeable, acceptable host, one with a similar philosophical pH and temperature range. The one it’s most compatible with is the Republican Party, whose basic DNA structure it already shares.

Plouffe gets it. “I do think that Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, they are the leaders of the Republican Party,” he told David Gregory on “Meet the Press.” “There is an intolerance in that party, an extremism that I think is where the real energy is.”

That’s the problem for the GOP: figuring out to sell to the American people the idea that everything that’s happened in the last 19 months would be better if John McCain (who’s admitted to knowing nothing about the economy) had won in 2008; figuring out how to sell the idea that the Republicans have had nothing to do with what’s happened with the economy since 2008; figuring how to sell the idea that the Republican Party is good for the nation when the Republican Party has doubts that the Tea Party is good for the Republican Party; trying to convince people that what may be happening in Kentucky, Alaska and Nevada has the merits to be exportable to the country as a whole.

Sales-wise, that’s a much heavier lift than the one the Democrats face, and the Republicans know it. That explains their willingness to aggressively double down on negative ad hominem attacks (“They talk about me like a dog,” the president said today in Milwaukee) and reliably provocative hot-button cultural issues from insinuations about Obama’s birthplace to the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

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Reports of the Democrats’ passing from power may be premature. Obama’s rhetorical fire, banked of late, was much in evidence today, as well as his ability to drill down to specifics. During the speech, Obama launched a proposal to gain Congressional approval of $50 billion for a six-year plan to improve the national infrastructure (a measure that’s sure to be media-shorthanded as the Planes, Trains & Automobiles Bill). When he heads to Cleveland on Wednesday, stumping for the party in Boehner’s state of Ohio, he plans to propose another $100 billion in research tax credits for small businesses.

The Democrats first-string offense is back on the field, where they need to stay from now til Election Day. Obama’s galvanizing, gloves-off rally to the troops today sent a strong signal: Every good-bye ain’t gone. We’re not dead yet.

Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, sent another signal last week on MSNBC. It didn't get a lot of attention, but it bears mentioning here — and remembering everywhere: “This president has created more jobs in a recession than George Bush did in eight years as president with an almost trillion-dollar surplus. Our members aren’t stupid. They know who’s there. You can’t get them to vote against somebody, against a friend who’s trying to get jobs ...

“That’s the Republicans’ problem. They’ve said no to everything and they have no program to run on ...

“You can’t beat something with nothing.”

Image credits: Obama: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press. Palin: via NBC News. Obama in the Rose Garden, Sept. 3: Chuck Kennedy/The White House. 

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