I thought we elected the “Hope” Obama, not the Jimmy Carter one


I feel this is the first time I’ve ever written the following four words on this blog: Bill Clinton is right.

From ABC.com last Friday :

"Bill Clinton says Obama needs to sound more hopeful: Former president Bill Clinton tells Good Morning America, in an interview airing today, that he likes "the fact that (President Obama) didn’t come in and give us a bunch of happy talk. I’m glad he shot straight with us. … (But) I just want the American people to know that he’s confident that we are gonna get out of this and he feels good about the long run. … I like trying to educate the American people about the dimensions and scope of this economic crisis. … I just would like him to end by saying that he is hopeful and completely convinced we’re gonna come through this."

Robert Shiller is right, also.

From NYTimes.com yesterday :

"The attention paid to the Depression story may seem a logical consequence of our economic situation. But the retelling, in fact, is a cause of the current situation — because the Great Depression serves as a model for our expectations, damping what John Maynard Keynes called our “animal spirits,” reducing consumers’ willingness to spend and businesses’ willingness to hire and expand. The Depression narrative could easily end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Shiller is writing that while Obama may have felt the need to evoke the Great Depression to get his stimulus plan passed, it was a risky approach as it could reinforce the collective fear that now is present in the nation’s consciousness. (I can’t quite figure out what exactly she is saying, but I think Maureen Dowd writes the same thing .)

Interestingly, Franklin Roosevelt, the President who is credited with leading the country out of the real Great Depression, took a rhetorical tact that was opposite of the "scare them so they’ll support me" approach. FDR’s first speech as President included one of the most famous sentences ever spoken by someone in the office: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." In other words, FDR understood his most important job in leading the nation out of a severe recession was that of inspirer-in-chief.

It’s ironic to me that President Obama, who is one of the most gifted public speakers of this or any generation, has focused those considerable skills on educating — and frightening — us, rather than inspiring us. I hadn’t noticed it until last week’s press conference when he went into university-professor mode with his answers in something seemed designed to demonstrate to reporters his mastery of wonkish details rather than speaking past them like he did during the campaign.

In this way, he seems to be less in the tradition of FDR or Kennedy or Reagan (whose communication skills he praised during the campaign) or even the Obama that is on that "Hope" poster and is more in the tradition of Jimmy Carter who was, arguably, a skilled technician and scheduler of tennis court time, but about as inspiring as that rock over there. Just go back and read what became known as Jimmy Carter’s Malaise speech . When you read the text, you might think the man was a genius and nailed not only what was happening then, but now as well.

But ask any presidential historian and he or she will rank it among the worst Presidential addresses ever. It was so bad, Republicans are still running against it. Why? Because thoughout the speech, Carter comes across as the worst junior high school civics teacher you ever had (anyone? anyone?) and there are some places in the speech where Carter can be interpreted to sound a note of pessimism and, worse, to imply that the American people were to blame.

"If you want the people to move, you move them the way Roosevelt moved them, or you exhort them the way Kennedy or Johnson exhorted them. You don’t say, ‘It’s your fault,’" says historian Roger Wilkins .

I can forgive President Carter for his failure to inspire people: Unlike, President Carter or President Bush (pick one), President Obama actually has "the gift" necessary to simply speak and lift people up.

I can’t figure out why he doesn’t outsource to others the wonk-talk and fear-mongering and use his time to inspire us to believe that our run of 230 years as a country moving forward is not at its end.

And I can’t figure out why this is so obvious to Bill Clinton and me.

Sidenote: Where conversations take place: Louis Gray pointed to this post via the sharing feature on Google Reader, which was picked up by his FriendFeed stream which generated a debate that’s lively , to say the least.

  • The one thing that Obama has is time. Politicians are much more fluid with the messaging than us marketers. Dipping into a bit of ugly/realistic talk right now is okay, assuming it fits his current goals. But it comes with some political cost from his ‘message of hope’. If it continues, he’s got a problem like you describe.

    (A cynical person might even say he is lowering expectations.)

    It’ll be interesting to hear what he has to say to congress. I’ll be listening for how much hope he’ll be doling out.

  • I don’t know about you, but I find some comfort in the fact that we finally have a president who works from a place called reality. This idea that we need a constant pep talk might have been necessary when we were a much more naive and gullible people, but after the last eight years I think folks are thirsty for actual truth and sincerity – they want to get beyond the “go shopping and you’ll be fine” head-in-the-sand rhetorical voodoo. And cut the guy some slack – he rarely leaves the podium without expressing his sincere belief that we shall overcome… but right now, we are in the weeds and pretending we’re not won’t do us any good.

  • Rex–nice to catch up. I spent some time browsing your sites and am really impressed at the direction your business has taken. This post made me convert from browsing to commentating, always a dangerous transition, but I was thinking about this over the weekend. I think there’s a chance Obama’s looking at things, saying, “OK, I’ve got 4 years to go,” and is waiting for the right moment to cash in the emotional capital that will get spent with a “We are Americans and we will persevere!” speech. The fact that he doesn’t see it as the right time…and he appears to have pretty good instincts in how to use the podium to generate emotional capital…says a lot about how little visibility the top guys in the White House have into what is going with the economy at the ground level.

  • frgough

    You are missing a key piece of information. Obama WANTS the economy tanking and the American people frightened. Rahm Emmanuel has said publicly stated that a crisis allows you to move your agenda quickly.

  • Great comments. I’m not cynical enough to believe Obama wants the economy to tank anymore. However, I am cynical enough to believe there is some “timing” going on to help him go positive when leading indicators start signalling the bottom has been hit.

    As for @Michael. I’d like for you to go back and read Jimmy Carter’s speech and you’ll see how he, too, expressed his belief that we would overcome — but that’s not what people remember.

    Jimmy Carter worked from a place called reality. Bill Clinton worked from a place called Hope.

    You’d be hardpressed to find someone who dislikes Clinton more than me (for his demeaning of the office), but the dude oozed optimism and I’d swap this economy for his any day.

  • interesting article. thanks. this debate is about tactics. sugar-coatting our situation would seem like a bad idea. the people have spoken. obama has time tto act and the best congressional landscape for any president in many years. the problem is really strategy. in order to solve the nation’s deep and growing problems, we need a president who leads, and takes no prisoners. but obama seeks consensus and it’s a major problem. consensus is what got us into this mess. it’s a product of a flawed political system. breaking that mould is very hard, but it’s the only chance we’ve got. obama seems to want people to like him. it should be the opposite. now is the time to be unpopular. now is the time to make tough decisions. these attempts at bipartisanship are a waste of time. he needs to grow a set of brass ones. and soon.

  • Sorry about diverting the conversation – one never knows what will happen when you hit the magic Google Reader share button. 🙂

  • @Louis – I think that “share” button is one of the most powerful buttons there is.

  • @r – two things about your Carter comparison:

    1: Carter is about as charismatic as a lump of coal – he couldn’t “turn it on” when he needed it. Obama can and most likely will.
    2: Carter was dealing in a much different, much more controlled information environment. He had the option of being gloomy or not – and he could to a very large extent control the message – an option not quite as open to Obama.