Obama Hits His Rhetorical Stride

[ Posted Tuesday, April 19th, 2011 – 17:08 UTC ]

In his incomparable The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein coined a new word -- "tanstaafl." It's an acronym, and eventually became the nascent lunar government's motto (it's a great book, I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in governments and the problems they have while being born... but I digress). Tanstaafl stands for: "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."

President Obama eschewed the colloquial today, in his remarks at a town hall meeting in Virginia, preferring instead the more grammatical "there is no such thing as a free lunch" instead (tinstaafl?). But it's worth reading a few excerpts from his remarks, because Obama has truly hit the 2012 campaign trail in a big way. It may take a while for this to filter out into the jaded news media, but he is outlining the basic theme that he (and assumably, more than a few Democrats) will be running on from this point on.

From the official White House transcript of today's remarks, Obama hits this theme early on:

Last week, I laid out a plan to get America's finances in order. It was a plan for shared prosperity through shared sacrifice and shared responsibility. So before I take your questions, I want to talk a little bit about this plan briefly, because it goes to the heart of what's happening at this campus and schools like it all across America. And my plan does two big things: First, it cuts spending and it brings down the deficit. We all know how important that is. Just like any student on a tight budget -- and I'm assuming there are a few students on a tight budget here. Let's see a show of hands. Any students on a tight budget? I've been there. Just like you, America has to start living within its means.

For a long time, Washington acted like deficits didn't matter. A lot of folks promised us a free lunch. So I think everybody needs to recall, we had a surplus back in 2000, 11 short years ago, but then we cut taxes for everybody, including millionaires and billionaires. We fought two wars and we created a new and expensive prescription drug program, and we didn't pay for any of it.

And as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. So we were left with a big deficit as I was coming into office, and then we had the worst recession since the Great Depression. And that made it worse, because in a recession two things happen: Number one, the federal government helps out states and localities to prevent teacher layoffs and firefighters and police officers from being laid off, and all that costs money. It requires more money to provide additional help to people who've lost their jobs or are in danger or losing their homes. So the federal government is putting more money out, but because of the recession it's taking less money in in tax revenues, and so that grows the depression -- the deficit further.

President Obama has been using the phrase "millionaires and billionaires" over and over again, which is excellent politics in a number of ways. Congressional Democrats are beginning to pick up on this as well. It's an idea wildly popular with the general public, and Democrats personalizing it as "millionaires and billionaires" will make it all the harder for Republicans to counter.

The biggest change in the way Obama has been speaking of late, though, is a more broad point -- not only is he strongly coming out in support of traditional Democratic ideals, but he is putting his remarks into an easy-to-comprehend narrative. Republicans are much better at this sort of thing, and the lack of a good narrative has been an almost universal complaint from the Left for quite a while now (I'm including me in with that, as I've been beating this drum for a long time).

Obama, by introducing this narrative, is appealing not just to the public's reason, but also to their emotion. From the end of his speech last Wednesday (which also is well worth reading in full):

This larger debate that we're having -- this larger debate about the size and the role of government -- it has been with us since our founding days. And during moments of great challenge and change, like the one that we're living through now, the debate gets sharper and it gets more vigorous. That's not a bad thing. In fact, it's a good thing. As a country that prizes both our individual freedom and our obligations to one another, this is one of the most important debates that we can have.

But no matter what we argue, no matter where we stand, we've always held certain beliefs as Americans. We believe that in order to preserve our own freedoms and pursue our own happiness, we can't just think about ourselves. We have to think about the country that made these liberties possible. We have to think about our fellow citizens with whom we share a community. And we have to think about what's required to preserve the American Dream for future generations.

This sense of responsibility -- to each other and to our country -- this isn't a partisan feeling. It isn't a Democratic or a Republican idea. It's patriotism.

Some Republicans, aided and abetted by the right-wing media, immediately declared that the president had just called them un-American, which is patent nonsense. But it does show how quick to take a defensive stance Republicans are, when it comes to the marketplace of ideology.

From today's town hall, Obama hitting the "millionaires and billionaires" theme again:

And we've also got to end tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Let me say, this is not because we want to punish success. I suspect there are a bunch of young people in this gym that are going to end up being wealthy, and that's good. We want you to. We want you to be able to go out there and start a business and create jobs and put other people to work. That's the American way. But we are going to have to ask everybody to sacrifice. And if we're asking community colleges to sacrifice, if we're asking people who are going to see potentially fewer services in their neighborhoods to make a little sacrifice, then we can ask millionaires and billionaires to make a little sacrifice.

We can't just tell the wealthiest among us, you don't have to do a thing. You just sit there and relax, and everybody else, we're going to solve this problem. Especially when we know that the only way to pay for these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans is by asking seniors to pay thousands of dollars more for their health care, or cutting children out of Head Start, or doing away with health insurance for millions of Americans on Medicaid -- seniors in nursing homes, or poor children, or middle-class families who may have a disabled child, an autistic child.

This is not a trade-off that I'm willing to make. It's not a trade-off that I think most Americans think is fair, no matter what party you belong to. That's not who we are as a country. We're better than that.

Obama's narrative is one that challenges America to face the reality that "We're Not Quite Number One Anymore," but does it with a positive spin and confidence that we can lead the world again if we only put our minds to it:

So, yes, we're going to have to save wherever we can; and my proposal makes some tough cuts to some worthy programs and services that if we were in better times I'd continue to fund. But I'll tell you what I'm not going to do. We're not going to reduce the deficit by sacrificing investments in our infrastructure. We're not going to allow our roads and our bridges to grow more and more congested while places like China are building new roads and new airports and thousands of mile of high-speed rail. If we want businesses to locate here in the United States of America and create jobs here, we've got to make sure that America is built to compete. We've got to have the best roads. We've got to have the quickest trains. We have to have the fastest broadband networks. That's who we are.

Some folks in Washington also want to close the deficit by gutting our investments in things like clean energy or medical research or basic science. That's not a viable choice. America has always been the world's engine of innovation and discovery. That's who we are. That's how we've prospered. I don't want other countries to lead in the industries of tomorrow. I want new technologies invented here in the United States. I want new solar panels and wind turbines and fuel-efficient cars and advanced batteries all to be made right here in the United States of America. I want us to invent them right here.

I mean, let's just take energy as an example. Folks are out there dealing with gas at four bucks a gallon. It's just another hardship, another burden, at a time when we're just coming out of a recession and things are already pretty tight for folks. Now, whenever this happens, just like clockwork, you see politicians going in front of the cameras and they'll say they've got a three-point plan for two-buck-a-gallon gas. The truth is, the only real solution to helping families at the pump in the medium and the long term is clean energy. That's how we'll save families money. That's how we'll reduce our dependence on foreign oil. We've got to develop new technologies to lessen our reliance on a fuel that is finite and that we've got to import from other countries, including some very unstable parts of the world. And that's why I think that cutting clean energy investments by 70 percent -- 70 percent, which has been proposed by some in Congress -– would be such a mistake.

Again and again, Obama stands up for Democratic values -- as opposed to just explaining what he's in favor of, he also explains why he's in favor of it. It sounds like such a simple thing, but it has been sorely lacking for quite some time now from Democrats in general. Obama's also drawing some lines in the sand over what is unacceptable from Congress, which is a good thing to see as well.

First of all, Medicare is one of the most important pillars of our social safety net. And so before I get to your specific point, I want everybody to understand what the debate right now about Medicare that's taking place between Democrats and Republicans is, because you're going to need this as this debate unfolds over the next several months.

The House Republicans just passed a proposal, and their main plan to reduce our long-term deficits and debt is to turn Medicare into a voucher program. What would happen would be that right now seniors, when they get -- once they're on Medicare, you basically are able to get the care that you need and Medicare covers it for you. What would happen under this proposal is you'd get a set amount of money; you could then go out under the private market place and buy insurance, but if the voucher you were getting for $6,000 or $7,000 and the insurance company said it's going to cost you $12,000, well, you're going to have to make up that difference.

And so it's estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, which is an independent, bipartisan sort of referee in Congress that determines these things -- they figure that seniors would end up paying twice as much for their health care as they are currently. At least twice as much. And more importantly, it would get worse over time, because health care inflation goes up a lot faster than regular inflation. So your health care costs keep on going up and up and up; the voucher doesn't. Each year, more and more costs coming out of pocket.

Now, I think that is the wrong way to go. That would fundamentally change Medicare as we know it -- and I'm not going to sign up for that.

The most amazing thing to me from this speech, though, came in the question-and-answer session afterwards. Obama squarely came out for the most intelligent and easiest way to "save Social Security." What is astounding about this is that this simple option is almost never even discussed in Washington, when speaking of the "crisis." There's an easy fix, and most Americans would strongly favor it, and Obama seems to be throwing down a marker, saying it is the route he would support. This could completely change the conversation on Social Security in Washington.

Social Security is a problem but one that we can solve much more easily. So the first answer to your question is, Social Security will definitely be there when you retire. I'm absolutely confident about that. I am absolutely confident about that.

Now, here's the thing. If we don't do anything on Social Security, if we just don't -- if we don't touch it at all, then what would happen is, by the time you retire, or maybe just a couple years after you retire, you might find that instead of getting every dollar that you were counting on, you're only getting 75 cents out of that dollar. Because what's happening is the population is getting older; there are more retirees per worker and more money starts going out than is coming in.

So we do have to stabilize Social Security's finances, but we can do that with some relatively modest changes -- unlike health care, where we've got to get in and work with providers and really get some much more substantial reforms. With Social Security, it's just a matter of tweaking how it currently works.

Now, politically, it's hard to do. Politically, it's hard to do. For example -- I'll just give you one example of a change that would make a difference in Social Security. Right now you only pay a Social Security tax up to a certain point of your income. So a little bit over $100,000, your Social Security -- you don't pay Social Security tax.

Now, how many people are making less than $100,000 a year? Don't be bashful. The point is, for the vast majority of Americans, every dime you earn, you're paying some in Social Security. But for Warren Buffett, he stops paying at a little bit over $100,000 and then the next $50 billion he's not paying a dime in Social Security taxes.

So if we just made a little bit of an adjustment in terms of the cap on Social Security, that would do a significant amount to stabilize the system. And that's just an example of the kinds of changes that we can make.

Obama, on his last question, ends strongly. He keeps hitting his main theme, and he keeps personalizing his message and delivering it in a fashion that most Americans can easily relate to.

The big question that is going to have to be resolved is, how do we do it [solve the budget problem]? And there is -- I don't want to lie to you, there is a big philosophical divide right now. I believe that you've got to do it in a balanced way. I believe that you've got to, yes, have spending cuts, but you can't cut things like education or basic research or infrastructure down to the bone.

I believe that people who have been really blessed in this society like me and have a very, very, very good income can afford to pay a little bit more -- nothing crazy, just go back to the rates that existed when Bill Clinton was president. That wasn't that long ago -- (applause) -- that that's a fair thing to do, especially if it makes sure that seniors are still getting their Medicare and kids are still going to Head Start. Why wouldn't I want to make that sacrifice? Look, and I think most wealthy Americans feel the same way.

I want to live in a society that's fair -- not just out of charitable reasons, but because it improves my life. If there are young people out there who are going to good schools and have opportunity, if I'm not driving by and seeing homeless folks on the streets, why wouldn't I want to have a society where I knew that the American Dream was available for everybody?

So the question is, how do we achieve the same goal? Can we do it in a more balanced way? And the House Republican budget that they put forward, they didn't just not ask the wealthy to pay more; they actually cut their taxes further.

Now, we just had Tax Day, so nobody wants to pay taxes. Let me tell you, I looked at my tax form and I though, hmm -- there is a moment there where you look at the figure you're paying and you say, wow, I don't -- let me think about my position on taxing the wealthy here. I understand that. Nobody volunteers and says, boy, I'm just wild to pay more taxes. But it's a matter of values and what we prioritize. And I certainly don't think my taxes should be even lower. That's -- I think America wants a smart government. It wants a lean government. It wants an accountable government. But we don't want no government.

According to the Republican budget that was passed, for example, we would have to eliminate transportation funding by a third. We'd have to cut transporting funding by a third. You remember when that bridge in Minnesota collapsed with all those people on it? And there was a big hue and cry: How can this happen in America? Well, the National Society of Engineers, they've looked around and they give us a "D" when it comes to infrastructure. Our roads, our bridges, our sewer systems are all deteriorating.

We don't even have a serious high-speed rail infrastructure in this country. Our broadband lines are slower than places like South Korea. Well, so what, we cut transportation by another third, and what's going to happen to America? We're just going to have potholes everywhere? We're just going to have bridges collapsing everywhere? Are we going to continue to have airports that are substandard? Are we going to go to other countries and suddenly realize that China and South Korea and all of Europe all have better infrastructure than we do, and we think that businesses are going to come here and invest? Or do we think that at some point companies say, you know what, America has got a second-rate infrastructure and it costs us too much money because our trucks going over those potholes are getting messed up?

So that's the choice that we're going to have to make. This debate is going to be very important, though. And as I said before, I'm going to need all of you involved in this debate. You've got to make your voices heard. And I would say, I'm not just talking to Democrats here. Republicans, I want you to be able to talk to your members of Congress and say, yes, I'm serious about reducing the deficit; yes, I want limited government; yes, I want reductions in spending -- but I do think that we've got to make investments in basic research and infrastructure and education, and so let's do it in a balanced way.

And if we do that, we can come up with a compromise that is effective, that puts America's fiscal house in order, but also allows us to win the future. That's my goal. I'm going to need your help, though.

Of course, what I'm examining here is only the president's message. "So he's good at giving speeches" is a common complaint, from both the Left and Right when talking about Obama (for different reasons). The real test will come when he enters the fray with Congress, in particular the House of Representatives.

But I have to say, just on the scale of speechifyin' alone, Obama seems to be starting his re-election campaign very strongly -- by framing his issues within a basic Democratic narrative which has been missing in action for quite a while. For that reason alone, both of his recent speeches are worth reading.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


16 Comments on “Obama Hits His Rhetorical Stride”

  1. [1] 
    akadjian wrote:

    For a long time, Washington acted like deficits didn't matter. A lot of folks promised us a free lunch. So I think everybody needs to recall, we had a surplus back in 2000, 11 short years ago, but then we cut taxes for everybody, including millionaires and billionaires. We fought two wars and we created a new and expensive prescription drug program, and we didn't pay for any of it.

    Here, here!

    Dang, that's good stuff. That's the Obama I voted for. No more comments, just going to savor it for a moment :)


  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    You're right, that really is an excellent speech. "Win The Future" is still a terrible slogan, though...

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    nypoet22 -

    Yeah, you're right, it isn't the best slogan I've ever heard. I notice Obama's not using it as much anymore, though. Maybe they decided the same thing.

    Personally, it reminds me of Gerry Ford's "Whip Inflation Now" buttons ("WIN"), and that's never a good thing.


  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    Maybe Obama should do a little less campaigning and a little more of the job he was hired to do??

    Sure, Obama gives a good speech..

    Obama ALWAYS gave a good speech...

    But, when the rubber hits the road, Obama usually falls flat on his face..

    I am surprised ya'all would be taken in (AGAIN) by fancy words and loquacious speeches...

    "All it'll take is a few shiny beads and some shallow flattery."
    -BJ Honicutt, MASH


    "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me"
    -Scotty, STAR TREK, Friday's Child

    I couldn't decide which quote was more apt, so I used 'em both.. :D


  5. [5] 
    akadjian wrote:

    I am surprised ya'all would be taken in (AGAIN) by fancy words and loquacious speeches.

    No more taken in than anyone who listened to Reagan :)

    As President, I believe one of your biggest jobs is to set a vision for the country.

    Obama, like Reagan, can be quite good at this as you mentioned.

    I also believe that we have to get better at doing the same type of thing. Its one of the reasons I like to hang out here.


  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    As President, I believe one of your biggest jobs is to set a vision for the country.

    I disagree..

    I believe that the follow-thru is more important..

    I would rather have a president set realistic goals and actually achieve them, rather than a president who blows smoke up me arse but never actually delivers...


  7. [7] 
    akadjian wrote:

    I disagree..

    I believe that the follow-thru is more important.

    But that's because you want him to lose :)

    If you've lead a business or lead a team, you know that the first thing you have to do is lay out a vision and get buy-in for your vision.

    Here's our goal, and here's why we need to accomplish it.

    If you don't, you're going to face an uphill battle the entire way.

    This is probably the single biggest reason conservatives have been more successful over the past 30 years. They've set the agenda. Even when Democrats are in office.

    Now granted, part of the reason they've been able to do this is because they've had some extremely well-heeled backers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is probably the biggest. It also helps when you own the media :)

    Think about it. You can recite this vision by memory to the point where its become religion: smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation ... rinse & repeat. Trickle down, trickle down.

    Even after the economic crisis people are so bought into this vision that they are ready to believe just about anything other than this vision was to blame.

    No excuses though. I believe progressives have a better vision. If anything we should spend more time getting it out there. Use the bully pulpit!


  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    If you've lead a business or lead a team, you know that the first thing you have to do is lay out a vision and get buy-in for your vision.

    But there comes a time when you must quit talking about "the vision" and actually fulfill it...

    "Quit trying to hit me and HIT ME!!"
    -Morpheus, THE MATRIX

    Obama has been laying out his vision for about three years now..

    When are we going to start seeing some results??


  9. [9] 
    akadjian wrote:
  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:

    ...economists are hopeful.....

    ...companies appear to be positioning themselves for a firming economic environment...

    ...outlook for employment rose slightly....

    etc etc etc...

    Not really "visionary" stuff now is it??

    We go trillions and trillions of dollars in debt for "appears to be" and "hopeful" and "slight rise"???

    Yea, I know.. I know.. We have to start somewhere..

    But we should have been at THIS point a year or two ago....

    Ya know.... Back when Obama was tied up with CrapCare....

    A year and a half... We just have to survive another year and a half...


  11. [11] 
    akadjian wrote:

    We just have to survive another year and a half...

    So dramatic ... :)

    Yes, your very existence is threatened because he's worse than Hitler!!!!

    (Ok, I done it. Yunno I'm kidding. Just had to bring Hitler in.)


  12. [12] 
    akadjian wrote:

    "Sooner or later you're going to realize just as I did that there's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path." - Morpheus, The Matrix

  13. [13] 
    Michale wrote:

    hehehehehehehehe :D

    "Sooner or later you're going to realize just as I did that there's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path." - Morpheus, The Matrix

    Kudos :D


  14. [14] 
    Michale wrote:

    Seriously though...

    Is Obama the president he said he was going to be??

    Looking at his presidency in the cold light of objectivity, I would have to say no...


  15. [15] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Hey Michale- I have some new secret evidence that Obama was not born in this country, but is actually a pirate ...

  16. [16] 
    Michale wrote:

    Too funny.... :D

    On 17 May we might just find out the truth..

    Mr Hope, Change and Transparency sure isn't giving us any of it...


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