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.