Memo to Obama:

Communicate better

By Theda Skocpol

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 r. President, you were elected in large part on the strength of your eloquent speeches. But I will be blunt. Your White House has a dismal track record when it comes to communicating your goals and accomplishments.

Yes, Fox News is spreading disinformation daily. Yes, congressional Democrats are, as always, all over the place. But you and your advisers have utterly failed to use the bully pulpit of the White House at a time when Americans are deeply anxious about the nation’s economic future. How could you cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans and not make the cuts fully visible to all? How could you champion a health reform law that, polls show us, is popular in almost every specific feature, and not get across what is in that reform? Above all, how could you, in two long years, fail to outline a plan for national recovery and renewal? Americans would be more understanding of where we are, and where we need to go—whether Congress cooperates or not—if they believed you had a strong plan for economic prosperity.

Presidents are expected to speak for the nation and justify their vision in patriotic terms. Since the onset of the financial meltdown and the Great Recession, Americans have yearned to hear about how the nation is going to generate new jobs, spur innovation, and set its fiscal house in order. So tell them. You have spent too much time haggling with senators and special interest groups over details. Stop worrying further about what Congress will pass. It won’t pass much of anything from now on anyway. Instead, tell us broadly where we’ve been, where we are, and what we need to do.

Sum up briefly how your policies saved America from a second great depression—and at minimal net cost to the taxpayer. Mention that the TARP has been almost fully repaid and that the U.S. auto industry is back on its feet. Then move on fast: America cannot settle for prolonged sluggish growth and high levels of joblessness. With a few choice international comparisons, explain why U.S. physical and communications infrastructure is underdeveloped and holding us back. (“Why are our Internet connections slower and more expensive than France’s?”) Give us a few snapshots, as well, about how other nations are doing more than we are to encourage energy efficiency.

Then paint a picture of a better future and call us to action. Talk about infrastructure: high-speed rail, expanded broadband, increased water traffic, a future of people and information getting from here to there much more easily. Explain how developing our infrastructure can create new jobs and lay new national foundations for economic growth at a time when the cost of such projects is relatively low. How universal high-speed Internet can allow an entrepreneur in rural Maine to launch a world-competitive business. How modern airports and bridges can keep merchandise moving from New Mexico to the rest of the world. How energy efficiency products manufactured here at home can revitalize Wisconsin’s economy.

When you discuss our fiscal future, start by emphasizing that generating jobs and growth—not savagely cutting spending in a recession—is the best first step to controlling the long-term federal deficit. Note that the deficit commission and other groups have put forward plans for saving money. Don’t endorse any of them yet. Tell Congress to take all ideas seriously. Use the best ideas going forward.

But make clear that everyone has to contribute. Those who favor tax cuts for billionaires paid for with our children’s money are not serious about the nation’s fiscal future. Call them out, Mr. President. Quote Warren Buffett.

You have made cuts to the federal budget, but assure the nation that we cannot afford to cut investments in education. Nor do we have to shred Social Security, which is in better shape than almost any other part of the federal budget. Social Security is a beacon for regular Americans in this down economy. It was first launched in the 1930s as a way to help older workers retire and open jobs for the young; another major economic downturn is no time to coddle the desire of Wall Street insiders to cut this program! That’s a direct path to a one-term presidency.

Finally, tell us the truth about the federal deficit—heck, use a chart to display it. That way you can easily show that the biggest budget problems are in health care, especially in the rising costs of Medicare. Explain how the Affordable Care Act of 2010 helps to solve them—and to make us healthier. Reiterate the core provisions of the act: new rules of the game for insurance companies; new state-level “exchanges” where buyers can “comparison shop” for health plans; aid to citizens of modest means; and improvements in Medicaid and Medicare. Stress the role of individual states, because a lot of people don’t know the role their state will play—and many citizens will be glad to know that they can get involved in adapting Affordable Care to their state’s unique needs. Include a brief explanation of why the individual mandate is like requiring all drivers to get auto insurance—so as not to shift the cost of accidents onto others, raising costs for everyone else. (But explain that the mandate will not apply to anyone until after credits are made available to enable every citizen or business to afford health coverage. Affordable health care for all is the goal.) Say you are sure there will be variations and experimentation, but that you will not brook any plan to “repeal” health reform. It matters to the health of millions of Americans—and it is the key to a better fiscal future.

The 2011 State of the Union address is the ideal moment for you to hit on big themes that matter to all Americans—especially to younger generations, who will be more likely to vote next time—and then stick with those themes, repeat them, and repeat them again all the way through 2012. I’m talking about pithy, concrete phrases and examples—yes, sound bites—that you should carry with you everywhere you go. Leave the bubble of D.C. Don’t worry about what David Broder has to say. Inspire Americans. You can be largely positive in your message, but make sure that Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are going on the offensive, criticizing the GOP every time it takes steps to kill jobs or pass giveaways for the super-rich—because no political movement can survive without going negative sometimes. But most of all, Mr. President, make sure you have a message.

Photo: Getty Images"

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Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. Along with Lawrence Jacobs, Skocpol is the author of the new book Health Care Reform and American Politics, and author and editor of a just-finished assessment of Obama’s first two years called “Reaching for a New Deal,” available at the Web site of the Russell Sage Foundation.  
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