WASHINGTON — Michael Gerson, who knows a thing or two about presidential speeches, says that President Barack Obama’s Monday night address to the nation about the debt ceiling really wasn’t about anything at all. The president was merely getting a jump on the blame game rather than advancing a new argument or reframing the debate.
Gerson, chief speechwriter for George W. Bush, may know of what he speaks, but I respectfully beg to differ. Obama wasn’t just blaming, though he did plenty of that. He was also clearly auditioning for his post-presidential Act II as a Fox News commentator. How else to explain the sudden injection into his lexicon of the words “fair” and “balanced?”
As we enter the whirlwind of the 2012 presidential election cycle, Obama is distancing himself from hope and change, a campaign slogan that requires exhausting emotion and radical movement, and shifting to a homey, market-tested message that, if cable news is your guide, resonates better in the American parlor.
Forget the polls. Show me the ratings!
Obama mentioned the word “balanced” seven times, including thrice in one paragraph about his “balanced approach.” He’s just a compromising, Henry Clay sort of fellow, while those Richie Riches on the other side of the aisle are obstruction-loving, average-American haters. (I’m translating here.)
The word “fair” made four appearances. Obama is just trying to be fair by asking the richest Americans (who already pay all the taxes) to pay “their fair share.” This may, indeed, be necessary in the final analysis, but demonizing “the wealthy,” putting the family of four that earns $250,000 in the same category as billionaires is disingenuous and hardly the way to cooperative, compassionate hearts.
He also mentioned Ronald Reagan and Thomas Jefferson. Obama long ago recognized the power of dropping Reagan’s name, and Reagan did say many reasonable things that hard-righters wouldn’t love today. For that matter, hard-righters wouldn’t even nominate Reagan today, but why mess with a good myth as long as it’s still working on the stump?
As Gerson pointed out, a presidential address to the nation is “a chosen and deliberate political act.” Obama may have failed to bestir hearts by focusing mostly on the other team’s unwillingness to play on his terms, but he was assuredly acting deliberately.
It was a political maneuver, pure and simple.
The notion that only the White House has been trying to make this sucker float and the Republicans have only been trying to rip off poor people is of course nonsense. But Obama effectively delivered this message in his usual calm, unruffled, patient, Obi-Wan way. A casual news consumer might have wondered what the heck is wrong with those selfish Republicans.
Alas, House Speaker John Boehner, who followed Obama with a speech of his own (and did sound like the dental hygienist needed to give him a quick rinse), didn’t help matters. Whatever else he may have said, the words that stuck just eight days before the U.S. defaults on its loans, were: “That is just not going to happen.” Boehner was referring to the “sad truth” that the president “wants a blank check.”
What happened to all that bonhomie? The golf summit? The bipartisanship and cooperation? Monday night’s dueling speeches were purposeful, all right. They were a stakeout and Obama’s was for 2012. Fair and balanced? You decide.