What Obama Needs to Do

What Obama Needs to Do

By William Galston - September 17, 2008





I'll get right to the point: You are in danger of squandering an election most of us thought was unlosable. The reason is simple: on the electorate's most important concern - the economy -- you have no clear message, and John McCain has filled the void with his own.

This is more than my opinion. The Democracy Corps survey released yesterday proves the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Backed by a wealth of persuasive detail, here is the nub of their conclusion:

In the absence of a coherent change message from Obama, many voters are accepting McCain's definition, particularly since they want to change Washington and clean up government. As a result, Obama has lost his double-digit advantage over McCain on the right kind of change.

When I say you have no message, here's what I mean:

First, you are not offering a coherent account of what has gone wrong with the economy - why it is no longer working for average families. People are anxious and bewildered; they want to know why jobs are disappearing, why incomes are stagnating, and why prices are soaring. If you don't offer an explanation, McCain's will carry the day by default: the problem is the corrupt, self-interested politicians in Washington; the solution is getting them - and government in general - out of the way.

Second: you are not offering a focused, parsimonious list of remedies for the economic ills you cite. As a result, few if any voters can actually cite a single signature economic proposal you have made. It's not that you don't have ideas. If anything, you have too many. At some point, more becomes less, and you are well beyond that point. You need to decide which three or four economic proposals are most important and repeat them relentlessly for the next seven weeks.

Your campaign already contains everything you need to do this. You could offer a focused economic message with four elements: rebuilding the United States, with an infrastructure bank, generating millions of good jobs that can't be outsourced; creating millions more jobs by leading the world in environmental innovation; significantly reducing the tax burden on average families; and offering health insurance to everyone at a price they can afford. If you say that about your economic plan - and nothing else - from now until November, there's a good chance your message will get through.

Third: you are not drawing crisp, punchy contrasts between your plans and McCain's. An example: the centerpiece of his health care plan is the taxation of employer-provided health care benefits. Pound away at that, and let him explain why throwing workers into the individual health insurance market unprotected is such a wonderful idea. And by the way, while your plan would increase coverage, his would do the opposite. Is that the change Americans want?

Fourth: your stump speech is too long and discursive. It shouldn't last more than fifteen minutes, it should focus on your agenda, not today's news story, it should feature short, declarative sentences, and it should leave no doubt about what you care about the most. Right now, regrettably, few Americans believe that you feel real passion about their economic plight and are willing to wage a tough fight on their behalf. It's your job to convince them otherwise, and you don't have much time to do it.

A message is a thought not only sent, but also received and understood. If your hearers aren't getting it, it's not a message. The essence of political speech is functional, not aesthetic. It is a tree judged by its fruit, and the fruit is persuasion. Right now you're not persuading the people you need to persuade, and nothing else matters.

Fifth: there's no coordination between an economic message and the rest of your campaign. If you want the focus to be on the economy, that's what your paid advertising and your surrogates should be doing as well.

Attacking McCain for employing lobbyists is a waste of precious time and resources; it plays on his turf and accepts his definition of the problem. Moreover, It diverts attention from the core issue - a Republican approach to the economy, shared by Bush and McCain, that shafts ordinary Americans and does nothing to help them deal with the challenges of global competition. So far, while the McCain campaign has gone for the jugular, you've gone for the capillaries.

Some Americans won't support you because they think you're too young and inexperienced to be president, or that you're too liberal, or not patriotic enough, or because you might raise taxes, or because you're African-American. That's inevitable. The good news is that by themselves, these Americans are not a majority. The bad news is that they might become part of a majority if they are joined by the many Americans who are open to supporting you but are turning away because they don't hear you speaking to their concerns in a manner that they can understand.

This is not about you alone; it's a matter of political responsibility. Millions of Americans have invested their hopes and dreams in you, and you owe it to them to campaign effectively, which isn't happening right now. Yes, the McCain campaign is replete with exaggerations, evasions, and outright fabrications. It's your responsibility to defeat them, not complain about them. If this means listening to advice you don't want to hear, and getting out of the "comfort zone," so be it.

Three months ago, when you were riding high, the McCain campaign was flat on its back. But give McCain credit: when he was told that to win he had to change, he did. He focused, and he accepted a kind of discipline that he had previously resisted. Now it's your turn.

William A. Galston holds the Ezra Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow. A former policy advisor to President Clinton and presidential candidates, Galston is an expert on domestic policy, political campaigns, and elections. His current research focuses on designing a new social contract and the implications of political polarization.

William Galston

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