Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Messenger is the Message

No one has gotten more political mileage than Obama from uttering consoling banalities in grandiose settings. He stepped onto the national stage as a still-obscure Illinois State Senator, improbably delivering the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He captured our attention by assuring us that, vivid appearances to the contrary, the differences between red-state America and blue-state America are really superficial. After he’d become the presumptive 2008 Democratic presidential nominee he upped the ante by commandeering one of Berlin’s grandest public squares to proclaim the superficiality of Bush-era contention between America and Europe. When it came to accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, a sweaty convention hall filled with balloons, confetti and snarling partisans wouldn’t do. He needed a football stadium fitted out with majestic Greek columns and cheering throngs to signal that he was no ordinary partisan politician. Near the beginning of his presidency, he took possession of the magnificent reception hall of Cairo University to extend his own hand, rather than a neo-conservative fist, to the Muslim world.

All of these were memorable occasions, but try remembering much of anything that Obama actually said on any one of them. Insofar as you can, the disparity between text and context is pretty striking. If the Obama presidency has proven anything, it’s that all these divisions he promised to transcend cut a lot deeper than his feeble powers of persuasion. Persuading people that he had a better idea, however, was never the point.

If Obama’s conciliatory words were credible, it was because the messenger was the message. Insofar as Obama inspired conviction, it wasn’t because of what he said but because he—a black man, a citizen of the world, and man who’d grown up in exotic places among Muslims—was the guy saying it. The point of Obama’s big speeches was less to persuade his audience that he was saying especially reasonable things, than to present himself as an especially reasonable person by virtue of his biography and his fluency. If other people don’t grasp his extended hand, that just shows that they're unreasonable.

If you think things have changed, consider events of the last week. Apparently it dawned on people in the White House after the debt-ceiling negotiations that Obama  was paying a political price for not having an economic plan. You might have thought that the obvious remedy was to publicize the administration’s budgetary priorities expeditiously through a series of policy proposals specific enough to convince a skeptical public of their merits. That didn’t happen. Instead, Obama promised us yet another presidential speech. Not any old speech, mind you, but a major speech before a joint session of Congress, a forum usually reserved for State of the Union Addresses and declarations of war.

Any impression that Obama must have something important to say, however, was short-lived.  It was undermined, first, by the gamesmanship of making the speech conflict with a long-scheduled Republican presidential debate, and then by the administration’s decision to reschedule the speech for the next night, but not in prime time when it would conflict with something really important, like the NFL season opener. Could there be better evidence that Obama wants everyone to know that he's got a plan without caring much about how many people know what's in it?  A major speech that nobody listens to is just the ticket.

The dead giveaway, however, is that Obama has already told us everything we need to know about his “plan” before he has said a word about what's in it. Although, by all preliminary indications, it will consist in policies that Republicans have already rejected, he has made sure we've heard that his plan is “bipartisan.” So when a Republican House doesn’t summarily do whatever it is that Obama will tell them to do, it’ll be "putting party before country.” Once you've got that down, you can tune into the NFL pregame show with a clear conscience.

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