The Tools We Need to Persevere

Before examining President Obama’s first State of the Union address (transcript), we must acknowledge this: no matter how well he did, and how good immediate poll numbers appear, the goal for last night was not to change the game, but to lay out the rhetorical tools his party needs, and we must use, to turn the tables on the Republican opposition. Yesterday must be the beginning of a hard-fought campaign to capitalize on the event, and win back momentum on health care, and a host of other issues. Viewed properly, I think we got what we needed. Here’s why.

Populism: throughout the speech, we saw  brief mentions of an us/them dichotomy, a tactic geared towards rebranding Obama as, once more, the outsider. The American people “deserve a government that matches their decency,” Washington is “unable or unwilling to solve our problems,” “we all hated the bank bailout” but had to follow through on “the last administration’s program,” etc. Speaking once more in the language of popular need was, to reclaim the momentum it confers, a necessity, and one that was pointedly accomplished. Substantively, the entire front end of Obama’s address stressed tax cuts — not crushingly expensive cuts that benefit only the wealthy, but small-time credits that, combined, benefit the majority. In what could make a pretty good campaign ad, John Boehner (R-OH) sat on his hands, and Obama called him on it:

Framing: campaign finance isn’t about freedom of speech; it’s about corporate control of elections and, more importantly, foreign control of elections.

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.

I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities.

Focusing on foreign influence is clever, in that it’s easy to understand, clearly problematic, and avoids opening a needless front in the war against corporate greed. Also, where the transcript says “entities,” I could swear I heard “enemies.” One minor quibble: it’s not clear what, apart from clever changes to corporate law, can be done about Citizens United, and President Obama didn’t really offer an answer. But we now have a way to talk about the decision along valence issue lines.

Similarly, health care isn’t an entitlement program; it’s an “investment in our people” — and his plan is the only game in town:

But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know.

That’s not strictly true. But the GOP plan is, to date, a paper tiger (elephant?), one penned to check a box, not as a serious proposal. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this: when have you heard anyone mention the Republican alternative, except for the fact of its existence? Which leads us into the next note.

Reality checks: Obama “set the record straight” (his words), disabusing his more popular detractors of their myths about finance —

At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door.

And party control —

And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, a supermajority, then the responsibility to govern is now yours, as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.

As indicated by this post’s title, these rhetorical innovations are the tools we need to persevere. But that’s all they are. The best issue articulation in the world, which this speech probably approximated, does nothing if it’s only used for one day. We need to pressure our legislators for the solutions Obama offered, using the cues he provided. And the President needs to remain visible, to ensure that the contours of the debate remain defined by his office, or his allies. King’s to us.

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5 comments

  1. it’s not clear what, apart from clever changes to corporate law, can be done about Citizens United

    Lawrence Lessig is proposing a Constitutional amendment.

  2. I haven’t yet had the time to do all the research on it, but when was the last time a Democratic President talked about tax cuts in a State of the Union? And why weren’t Republicans applauding? Could it be that he stole their thunder? Could it be that his tax cuts didn’t help the “right” people? Or could it be that they just can’t wrap themselves around the rhetorical axle he laid before them of having responsibility for governance?

  3. Woozle, that’s a really interesting idea. Admittedly I just skimmed the post, but I didn’t see a proposal. I should put some more thought in to this, but this might work:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the PEOPLE’S freedom of speech EXPRESSION, or of the press; …

    I’ll put some more thought into this, but that would withdraw corporate speech rights, except as to the press, thus permitting an entire host of restrictions on corporate activity. The question is whether such a change would be too drastic: we want corporations to be able to disseminate truthful information, which they can now do with very little restriction.

    Changing “speech” for “expression” would also make clear that expressive conduct is protected — I’m not sure how far that would go — but also give courts a firmer footing for declaring money and campaign expenditures to be “speech.” Something to consider…

    And Philip, I think it’s the second to the last one ;-)

    1. ACG, I think swapping “speech” for “expression” would be a bad move, in light of the content-based restrictions on speech that democracies with constitutional protection for “freedom of expression” have enacted and have courts uphold.

      Seems to me a better amendment would simply be a fresh power for Congress (and the States, while you’re at it), going to the heart of the matter:

      1. Congress shall have the power to enact restrictions on the raising and expenditure of funds in elections to Federal office, provided that all candidates for an office shall be subject to the same restrictions and all individual donors or surrogates participating in an election for a particular office shall be subject to the same restrictions.
      2. Pursuant to their own Constitutions, each State shall have the power to enact restrictions on the raising and expenditure of funds in elections to offices within that State, provided that all candidates for an office shall be subject to the same restrictions and all individual donors or surrogates participating in an election for a particular office shall be subject to the same restrictions.”

      .

      When SCOTUS gets it wrong, the thing to do is to repeat the 11th Amendment – overturn that ruling specifically – not fiddle with another perfectly good section of the Constitution.

      Well, “perfectly good” is a bit of an overstatement… I wouldn’t object to “of any sort, for any reason no matter how good or compelling” being added to “no law” in the First.

      1. I like that idea. Texas has had stringent laws about campaign financing that the SCOTUS have essentially overturned. I think that, for once, Texas has the right idea, and that existing state laws should be retained, allowing the state to determine the campaign laws that it wants to use. At least the local elections can be not so dirty, anyway.

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