What Obama Needs to Say Now

President Eloquent needs to pick up the pace. This low-profile, back-room politicking just won’t do. Not now. No way.

Those 80 percent approval ratings are no more substantial than the foam floating on top of your last cappuccino. Just ask Howard Schultz.

President Obama is arguably the most eloquent public speaker since Reagan. But campaign eloquence is a whole lot different, if not easier, than the presidential eloquence — the rhetoric of governance. When Reagan came to the presidency, he proved himself a superior campaigner. But he managed to do something that Obama must do, as well: He must demonstrate his ability to move public opinion his way in a crisis.

Reagan had the ability to be clear — not necessarily eloquent — about complex matters that clouded the picture in his era, which was the number one economic problem facing Reagan when he took office in 1981.

And what Reagan managed to do was to speak plainly and simply about a matter most politicians and economists would speak riddles about. Reagan made it clear — and it really isn’t relevant to my argument here to question the policy implications or economic veracity of his administration’s approach to inflation: famously, tax-cutting, supply side economics. My point is that a sitting president was able to make is point — to the American public. Which is what Mr. Obama has yet to do.

It is not enough to be sober about the economic crisis America faces, as Obama was in his inaugural address. Nor is it enough to work the phones and Blackberries of Congress and other opinion leaders. But like Reagan, Obama must go directly to us — to the people — and be very clear (oh, that unfortunately Nixonian phrase!). So let’s hear some of this:

“Yes, this is a crisis. Yes, it’s going to get worse. No, the consensus is that no matter how innovative we are or how many hundreds of billions we spend, don’t expect a turnaround when spring comes. Or with the summer’s heat. Or very soon after that.

It took 30 years to get here. So it makes no sense to expect that we can out of when the trees bloom again.

The stimulus plan has come in for criticism from the right and the left of the political spectrum. The right cries, No stimulus! Where’s the beef? Too slowly cooked, if you ask them. Wind? Solar? Childhood ed?

The left cries, Where’s the WPA? The infrastructure spending to put folks back to work, as FDR did in the Depression? And what are all these tax cuts — sops to the failed supply side policies and ideologies of the discredited Friedmanian right?

The Harvard economist Feldstein and the Princeton economist Krugman — from the right, from the left — don’t see the stimulutative effect, either. Where’s the Bad Bank to soak up the trillions in mortgage liabilities?

But what I see — what Mr. Obama must surely see — is something beyond all this. Something further and deeper. Not that there isn’t plenty of stimulative billions in the new administration’s plan. There is. Here is the powerpoint to prove it. But even more: I see hope. Hope that — at last — the nation has finally embarked on a path to self-reliance. To an economy not enslaved to OPEC  — and thus to a continual cycle of wars. To a culture not inebriated with bubbles of credit. Living on it, dying with it.  I don’t say this isn’t a crisis. Everyone knows it is. But what I see is that the worst possible thing to do now is to panic — to make bad decisions. To regress to the failed policies of the past — the economic and foreign policies that linked together like a chain around the nation’s neck, dragging us into dependence, into debt, and into war.

I meant it when I said we can.

And in the strangest way — in a way that may seem wrong, somehow — this is the time. We can’t hesitate now. There is not going to be a better time or a later date. Our trains and other infrastructure are many years behind where they must be for America to recover in a healthy, vibrant, competitive way. It must no longer take 6 hours for a train to get you from New York to the nation’s capital, when much of the Western world spans that distance by rail in half the time.

We won’t regress to unscientific dogma about the threat of climate change.

We won’t throw in the towel about universal health care coverage. Or early childhood education.

Can we have it all? The answer is that we must have it all. Common sense dictates that we can’t have it all right now. First we are going to re-start the most powerful economy the world has ever known. And there’s plenty of stimulation in our plan — even as we phase it in.”

[This, then, is the direction. This is the feeling. This is what our president must do to show he can not only win the White House with eloquence — but win our hearts and minds with plain, but inspirational,spine-toughening talk.]

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Filed under Crisis Communication, Political Communication, Politics, Public Relations

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