Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 2, 2010

POETRY V. PROSE.... About a month ago, the White House made a deliberate rhetorical shift. As August vacations wrapped up and lawmakers returned from a month-long recess, President Obama went from making subtle allusions to the midterm elections to making explicit appeals for votes. Talk of trying to find common ground with Republicans was replaced with talk of trying to beat them.

With Congress adjourned and a month to go before Election Day, not only has the president's rhetoric intensified, but the frequency with which he takes his case to voters has increased considerably. Just this week, Obama delivered two stem-winders, one at a massive rally in Madison; the other at a Gen44 event in D.C. What's more, it's not just Obama -- Vice President Biden has fired up some good-sized crowds this week, too.

Reader D.C. emailed a question yesterday I've heard from quite a few folks lately, which I'm quoting with permission:

I attended a Joe Biden speech in Omaha, Nebraska yesterday. It was every bit as good as Obama's Gen 44 speech. Where have these guys been?

Another regular, V.S., noted last week the president seems to have "found his voice," but asked what took so long.

After two big events -- one in Milwaukee, one in Cleveland -- the first week in September, even E.J. Dionne Jr. noted, "Until Obama's Labor Day speech in Milwaukee and his statement of principles Wednesday near Cleveland, it was not clear how much heart he had in the fight or whether he would ever offer a comprehensive argument for the advantage of his party's approach.... Suddenly, there's a point to this election. Obama is late to this game, but at least he's finally playing it."

I understand where all of this is coming from. These speeches and events aren't just good for Democratic morale and generating some enthusiasm, they're also an opportunity to hear a coherent vision, hear leaders take stock of their accomplishments, and to be reminded of why the country elected them in the first place. It's really quite effective -- what Obama voter doesn't like seeing 20,000 people chant "Yes we can"?

But it's worth remembering a Mario Cuomo adage from 1985: "We campaign in poetry, but when we're elected we're forced to govern in prose," which he later truncated to, "You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose."

As this relates to the Obama White House, "where have these guys been?" Well, they've been knee-deep in prose, doing the ugly, messy, often-thankless work of running the executive branch of government in the midst of multiple domestic and international crises. There's little doubt that the president is one of the great American orators of our time, but he can't invest his time, year round, in these "Moving America Forward" rallies. The president just doesn't have time -- he's too busy, you know, moving America forward. Besides, the speeches would lose their punch if they were delivered all the time.

It's ironic, in a way, to appreciate the stark differences between Candidate Obama and President Obama. The concern among many throughout the campaign process was that Obama was overly reliant on charisma, style, charm, and emotion. What would happen when the crowds went home and the guy had to actually run the joint? Well, now we know -- what would happen is Affordable Care Act, the Recovery Act, Wall Street reform, student loan reform, Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, expanded stem-cell research, a nuclear arms deal with Russia, a new global nonproliferation initiative, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, etc. The irony being, the '07 and '08 concerns were arguably backwards -- this White House seems far more adept at governing than the political/communications efforts that were supposed to be this team's strength.

The point is that these guys whose speeches Dems have been enjoying the last few weeks have been there all along. They're just now re-embracing the poetry that got them elected in the first place, not because they forgot about it, but because as far as they were concerned, campaign season hadn't really started yet.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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Do you mean allusions, rather than elusions?

Posted by: troglodyte on October 2, 2010 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

One good consequence is that Obama is now filling out much more news coverage. In the news I watch I am seeing much less of the idiots like Palin as a result.

Posted by: lou on October 2, 2010 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

Let's not forget, though, that these guys plan for the marathon, not the sprint. And remember, too, something that these guys know all too well: No one pays attention to campaigns until after labor day. Which means that everyone is just beginning to pay attention now.

I don't like this strategy. It makes me very nervous. And I know all kinds of second guessing that will happen if it doesn't work. But it's probably the smartest strategy to follow.

Posted by: Paulk on October 2, 2010 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks Steve, I think we all needed a quick reminder of what the Dems HAVE achieved since 2008 despite the "Party of No" and the hideous concessions and disappointments that often accompanied them. To say nothing, of course, of the GOP's stated attempt to repeal almost all of that progress.

They still have A LOT to answer for, but punishing them during the midterms is not the solution given what's at stake.

Posted by: Kiweagle on October 2, 2010 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

The problem with this strategy is that it assumes the Democratic base will simply stop moping and suddenly rediscover its old fervor. I think this is naive. A party that favors competent governance over communication risks losing the emotional argument. This might not matter so much in ordinary times but current times are hardly ordinary. And what actually did happen? The Tea Party, Fox News, the largely uninformed and misinformed right filled the void. I know good people, by instinct generous and liberal, who now hate Obama, think health care reform is an outrage, and blame Democrats for the economy. A month of exciting rallies and stirring speeches will help but they won't help enough to overcome the tectonic forces of political opinion. This is a marathon where Democrats walked the first 20 miles and decided to sprint the last six.

Posted by: walt on October 2, 2010 at 4:00 PM | PERMALINK

Good post, Steve. It's worth remembering too, that Obama has a pretty good track record as "Mr. October".

August 2007 - falling way behind Clinton & Edwards in Iowa.
October 2007 - great fundraising numbers, followed by Nov. 10 Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech leading to January caucus victory.

August 2008 - falling behind McCain in the afterglow of Palin's nomination.
October 2008 - defeating McCain in every aspect of the campaign (debates, rallies, field organizing, fundraising, TARP negotiations).

August 2009 - health care reform stalled by "Gang of Six" and "death panel" town meetings.
October 2009 - moving Affordable Care Act through the Senate.

Obama's not always right (who is?) and he's not invincible (who is?), but he is one of the great counterpunchers in our political history.

Posted by: massappeal on October 2, 2010 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

One more thought---it was obvious in December 2008 that Democrats were virtually guaranteed to lose seats in the 2010 congressional elections. A "good" outcome for Dems would be losing 20+ House seats and 3-4 Senate seats. That's before we get to 10% unemployment for the past year.

To continue the marathon analogy from above, I'd guess that in Obama's mind he's trained to run a marathon that ends with a Democrat elected to succeed him in 2016, so that he's less than a quarter of the way through the race.

Posted by: massappeal on October 2, 2010 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

A very good post. The previous administration did everything in campaign mode. Remember those $300 tax rebate checks with the tacky inscription proclaiming it to be from the Bush White House? Who wants a return to that crap? Obama has class -- try to get used to it. He also knows how to campaign -- show some support, and get out there and vote!

Posted by: hells littlest angel on October 2, 2010 at 4:18 PM | PERMALINK

I have to disagree with you, Steve, when you say that Obama has been too busy to speak with poetry. He's given his weekly address most weeks, hasn't he? How hard would it have been to put some heart into them? He has speech writers, doesn't he? He's had other opportunities to speak out and speak up, but preferred instead to try to appease his opponents. One of the consequences of his conciliatory prose self was the long slog to get the very compromised so called Affordable Care Act. He has surrogates who have taken up the "bash progressives" cry, but could have been poetic messenger surrogates. The bully pulpit is part of his office tools, but he hasn't used it.

Posted by: CDW on October 2, 2010 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

If the House and/ or the Senate gain even one seat for the Democrats, I want every pundit and commenter who called the loss of seats a foregone conclusion to not only publicly apologize, but promise to STFU for one week as penance.

God, if any of you or these political hacks were talking about a football or baseball game, you'd get ejected from the room and probably get your @ss kicked. Grow a pair and do something about it!

Posted by: Kiweagle on October 2, 2010 at 5:04 PM | PERMALINK

OK, I'm glad Obama et al are starting to get more in the game. He was starting to look weak. If he can actually try harder to get progressive action going (like, let Liz Warren have real power and I'd like to hear updates about her now and then) then we've got game, not just him and the establishment. In any case it is massively important to prevent R takeover (note it isn't just voting records, it's party control about investigations, access, etc!)

And Steve, please cover the One Nation Rally OK? Try http://content.usatoday.com/communities/onpolitics/post/2010/10/washington-rally-liberal-groups-/1?csp=hf/

Posted by: neil b on October 2, 2010 at 5:12 PM | PERMALINK

@ massappeal - your timeline matches my impression that August has become Nutter Month. Cameras are pointed nonjudgmentally at whoever's making the most hysterical noise, while rational people are on vacation. Not a bad thing -- the nutters get to vent, and after Labor Day, when reasonable people start paying attention, the nutters can be hoist with the petards they tossed in August.

Posted by: mle detroit on October 2, 2010 at 5:15 PM | PERMALINK

I'm always surprised that people don't see the pattern here; Obama's done it again and again. It's rope-a-dope, plain and simple. Let the other side punch itself silly, absorb the blows, let them show everything they've got in their hand, and when they're completely extended, start hitting back.

Notice that the Repubs haven't had much to say after hammering home their 'message' all summer. Even Beck's been pretty quiet these days. The Tea Party candidates are looking nuttier and nuttier.

Steve's last line sort of tells the tale; remember the old line, "you never roll out a new product in August."

Posted by: mercury on October 2, 2010 at 6:06 PM | PERMALINK

I wish to add my full agreement with what Mr. Benen has written.
In reply to those who wondered why President Obama hasn't spoken in this manner in his weekly addresses; remember, the President is President of ALL the country All the time. It's only during election season(s) that a President can and should spend any large amounts of time showing his partisanship.
After all, governing isn't about partisanship, which may be why the Republicans are so bad at it; governing is about seeing that the welfare and security of the citizenry are provided for. The presumption being that men and women of good faith can, with give-and-take, agree on such measures.
That's something else Republicans don't seem to care much about anymore...

Posted by: Doug on October 2, 2010 at 6:06 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, thanks for the post! Very refreshing to hear a very clear sighted assessment. But Obama already signaled it when he said that the Republicans have politicked without doing anything about governing for 20 months; the Democrats have governed for 20 months without politicking, but for the next month or two they will do the latter.

Posted by: jjm on October 2, 2010 at 6:09 PM | PERMALINK

Steve, you say that Obama was knee-deep in prose, but that's part of the reason he had as much trouble as he did getting the programs he wanted enacted. (Yes, he did get bills passed, but only by severely watering them down to the point where they don't really get the job done). Since he wasn't campaigning, he was leaving the airwaves to the Fox News people to demonize his proposals. There was no pressure coming from the public in favor of Obama's proposals because he had abandoned "campaign mode". Reagan never made that mistake.

Posted by: Joe Buck on October 2, 2010 at 6:14 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks Steve. And Doug has a great observation too, as the comments from the Republicans who lost their primaries tend to show.

Posted by: golack on October 2, 2010 at 6:17 PM | PERMALINK

Obama should have attacked the GOP as the party of rule or rule no later than the summer of 2009. Instead, he insulted those that rallied to his standard in 2008 by pretending otherwise, by pretending congressional republicans constitute an honorable opposition. He's still can't bring himself to goddamn them in no uncertain terms, seemingly fearful of burning imaginary bridges. And Joe Biden has the gall to counsel the voters of 2008 to "buck up", as though the onus of the administration's political timidity were theirs to shoulder.

There have been accomplishments, sure. If they honestly believe they've done a bang-up job, fine. But their "damned ingrates" act is just an extension of their own ineptitude in dealing with the goose stepping republican party. That party is a mortal threat to our democracy, and should be confronted as such, loudly, candidly, and head-on.

Posted by: JW on October 2, 2010 at 6:20 PM | PERMALINK

Through these weeks of scolding and hurt feelings, I've been reminded of some of my favorite political poetry, that reminds us that prose is a necessity:
For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die
It's work, it takes years and sometimes decades, not months, and you don't give up, you keep trying and you come back again and again and again, and get a little more of what you want, and you win some fights and you lose others, and when one fight ends, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start again.
And to Obama and Biden, this is a much better way to remind people of that, than talking about "whining" and what's "inexcusable"
so with Barack Obama and for you and for me, our country will be committed to his cause. The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.

Posted by: JIm on October 2, 2010 at 6:34 PM | PERMALINK

Bill Clinton discovered the perpetual campaign, and George Bush perfected it. It works. A modern Presidency always has to be in campaign mode. It's just the way that modern politics works. It's a shame that the Obama Administration can't chew gum and walk at the same time.

Posted by: Joe S. on October 2, 2010 at 7:14 PM | PERMALINK

The trouble with the "nobody pays any attention to politics until after the Labor Day" dictum is that it's getting to be less and less true. More and more states now have the early voting -- either in person or via mail-in -- some will be opening it up *next week*. And, once those votes are in, nothing can change them. Not a change of heart due to Obama's rediscovered fire, nor sudden disgust at a scandal in one's choice candidate's camp...

And guess who's pushing the "vote early, to make sure" line the hardest? In '08, it was us; this year it's the Repubs and, the nuttier they are, the more intent they are on bagging their votes early. To make sure that you won't change your mind later, as you learn more about your "rejects bin" candidate.

Posted by: exlibra on October 2, 2010 at 7:40 PM | PERMALINK

Come on people, he never lost it. ever. I can't believe anyone doubted Obama's politicking skills. Helloooo, black guy, muslim sounding name, did I say black guy? Just a few years ago this was all impossible.

As Obama himself always says: Don't bet against him

Posted by: Alli on October 2, 2010 at 8:07 PM | PERMALINK

I vote "present."

Posted by: SquareState on October 2, 2010 at 8:25 PM | PERMALINK

I voted for Obama to have an adult running the show again. He's exactly what I expected. I enormously appreciate what he's doing, and resent but am resigned to the petty and completely typical sniping of the children.

Posted by: Jon on October 2, 2010 at 9:51 PM | PERMALINK

It's rope-a-dope, plain and simple.

Maybe, but there's a lot of dopes, and I'm not sure Obama has been creating enough rope.

Posted by: qwerty on October 2, 2010 at 10:05 PM | PERMALINK

It should be obvious these days that the 'prose' of governing requires a significant amount of 'poetry'. It's just flat out stupid to not pay attention to the selling of your agenda once elected. Congress watches Fox News and takes calls from their constituents that watch Fox. This administration has lost support through it's own inattention to the modern form of political engagement. For a bunch of smart people they have done a miserable job of communicating with the electorate.

Posted by: Nat on October 3, 2010 at 1:00 AM | PERMALINK

"This administration has lost support through it's own inattention to the modern form of political engagement. For a bunch of smart people they have done a miserable job of communicating with the electorate."

Maybe, just maybe, with Rahm gone, things will change.

Posted by: pol on October 3, 2010 at 1:10 AM | PERMALINK

First, I don't believe that Rahm was the problem. He has been combative while in the House.

Second, "whose speeches Dems have been enjoying the last few weeks have been there all along." Well POTUS has fallen far short of the campaign rhetoric of 2008.

Yeah, I'll vote. All Dems, too. But only because the TeapubliKKKans are just wa-a-a-y too extreme.

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Posted by: bet365 italia on October 3, 2010 at 5:35 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: RJ on October 3, 2010 at 6:41 PM | PERMALINK

"World Wrestling Entertainment, the company where Connecticut Republican Senate hopeful Linda McMahon served as CEO for years, once teamed up with the 'Girls Gone Wild' enterprise for a pay-per-view event featuring the raunchy, partly-nude show and some of the WWE's wrestling personalities."

I'm wondering what, if anything at all, this has to do with the Senate race. It wouldn't just be pandering to the LCD, would it?

Posted by: rock on October 4, 2010 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK



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