Obama’s Fading Rhetorical Power

President Obama is going flat.  I noticed today as he spoke about the economy that he fails  to deliver his message in two key ways.

First, the message he is sending is not clear and, second, it isn’t very simple. 

Today’s speech about the economy hit on some very broad ideas.  They are the interconnected problems of economics, jobs, and taxes.  Obama sort of scrambles these together and spices it up with some rhetorical tropes about billionaires and corporate taxes, but he fails to lay out a plan we should care about and more importantly WHY we should care.

It was not until halfway through his speech before he mentioned fairness in a context that matters.  Prior to this he talked about how billionaires, corporate jet owners and oil companies could afford higher taxes and should pay their “fair share” before we ask more of senior citizens and working families.  Ok, fair enough, so to speak, but he is creating sound bites for the irrational right.  He sounds like the redistribution of wealth demon that the right makes him out to be when he talks that way.  His entire argument seems to be based on a logic that the wealthy should pay more because they can pay more.  That doesn’t win the argument.

I would rather hear President Obama start with the undisputable question of fairness.  Why, for example, do people who have more income tend to pay a lower percentage of taxes on that income in real terms than most of us, even the most poor among us who do indeed pay taxes through payroll taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, and tax redistribution when they spend money on practically anything?

I believe if we made the facts clear that the people most capable of paying taxes get the best tax deals might be a good start at changing the politics of taxes in this country.  Instead Obama tries to co-opt the rhetoric of the right and that is not persuasive.

Second, why will taxes help the economy and in turn help job growth?  Obama does a better job here, but I would like to hear him take an aggressive position and hold it.  Obama is afraid to say that government investment will create jobs.  He hedges.  Don’t hedge.  Tell us what we need in government investment — infrastructure, for example — and tell us that meeting this need will put people to work.  Government projects create jobs.  Say it.  Defend it. 

Say it and defend it is probably the most useful advice we can give our president.  If he were writing a research paper or participating in an oratory contest I’m afraid he would get average grades at best.  Give us your idea — your thesis — tell us what it is you’re all about, defend and support it, and tell us again. 

Instead Obama keeps trying to frame his argument by reframing the positions of his critics.  It is hard to be powerful when always on the defensive.  Get off your heels and on your toes.  Push and then push some more.

Economic facts support stronger government investment.  The sooner we see a prolonged economic recovery the sooner the economy will grow.  Economic growth will make it easier to pay the investments we must make today.  Remember the surpluses of the 1990s?  Until we got all whacko on voodoo economics, we saw what a sound mix of economic policy and progressive politics can do for our country.  That should be the POSITIVE supporting story of President Obama’s speech, not divisive attacks on stereotypes like Big Oil and billionaires.  Fairness will find them — and help them — if we enact more sane economic policies.

We need a more aggressive leader with a simple and positive message; our president needs to be direct and consistent; and most importantly he needs his own message.  Right now he looks more like a negotiator trying to find a space at the table.


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