I usually hate it when pundits put style ahead of substance. It’s most often done by people who don’t actually know much about substance, or don’t give any indication of knowing much. So when someone writes a sentence like “It’s not so much what Barack Obama says on Thursday night as how he says it,” I groan. Having said all that: It’s not so much what Barack Obama says on Thursday night as how he says it.
This is just one of those cases when the hoary cliché is true. We know more or less what the substance of the president’s proposals will be, and it will be modest. The plan will include tax cuts, business tax benefits, and a smallish public-works component. Any dollar spent on all these items will be offset by spending cuts, thus pumping money out of the economy while pumping other money in. It’s not a big punch. If the Republicans had a little mischief in them, they’d pass the whole thing, put a bow on top, and sit back and let the voters watch as the plan again fell short of expectations and hype.
But they won’t, of course. Anything Obama proposes is socialism. So they’ll take these meek, market-oriented proposals and try to turn them into the equivalent of collectivism. The battle, in other words, won’t be over the substance. It will be over words. And Obama has to take a new approach here.
If he comes out with the same passive posture, pleadingly saying to Republicans that we should all set aside our differences for the good of the American people and move forward in the spirit of compromise, he’ll have a disaster on his hands. The Republicans will know they can roll him again. He’s been talking that talk for three years. It’s gotten him to 38 percent approval and zero Republican votes in Congress on big measures.
The effect will be far more dramatic on his fellow Democrats. This tends to be overlooked. We think about how a president’s words are heard by the opposition more than we do about how his own party receives them. But if Democrats have to sit through yet another monologue in which Obama sounds like a fourth grader asking the sixth graders to play nice—well, they’ll go on the cable nets and say what they consider it their duty to say, but they are going to leave that chamber an awfully dispirited bunch.
Instead, Obama needs to say something like: “Now, to my Republican friends. I have made repeated calls for bipartisanship. You have refused to respond in kind, repeatedly. Your Senate leader has said that the most important item on his agenda is not getting the American people jobs, but making sure I lose mine. So far this year, I’ve met you more than halfway on the budget and the debt deal. I have shown my good faith. You haven’t shown yours. I’ve tried to do it the nice way. You keep wanting to fight. So now, if it’s a fight you want, it’s a fight you’ll get. Not for me, or for my job, but for the American people, for the unemployed and the underemployed and everybody whose lives are made tougher by this economy. That’s a fight I’m thrilled to have, because I am on their side, and you people are on the side of the top 2 percent.”
The next day, he needs to fly down to Cincinnati and give a fiery speech somewhere in John Boehner’s district. Then he needs to hop across the bridge and deliver another stemwinder somewhere in Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky. On his way back to Washington, he should stop off in Eric Cantor’s district and give another speech there. And then keep at it—three appearances a week in places well chosen for the leverage gained from being there. And take some risks, go to red places, places where he knows he’s going to get 40 percent of the vote, like Texas. Get it?
Sigh. A boy can dream. He’ll no more do any of this than he’ll show up wearing a sweatsuit and bling and rap the speech. But imagine if he did. The Democrats would be amazingly energized for the first time in two years. The Republicans would at least know they were in a new ballgame and be forced to change their game plan. And the American people would start to get a sense that the president is fighting for them instead of beseeching people who clearly hate him.
So it’s all about the words on Thursday night. They need to be fighting words.