Line in the Sand: Frank Rich and Adam Moss on Obama's Feisty Rhetoric

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President Obama field-tests his campaign platform. Photo: Tim Sloan-Pool/Getty Image

Adam: Hi, Frank. You hammered Obama pretty hard in your July cover story, "Obama’s Original Sin." I wanted to check in and get your reaction to last night’s jobs speech.

Frank: I thought Obama's performance was good in several ways. First, it was actually a speech, some two to three years late, laser-focused on jobs. Second, he had a specific proposal — an actual, concrete bill, a line in the sand, not gauzy principles that he would leave to Congress to flesh out with specifics. And a bill that actually might offer short-term help, at least, to suffering Americans. Third, I thought at the end he made the strong defense of government's mission that we've been hungering for. But I just don't know how many people were listening on the way to the NFL kickoff. And I have no expectation that anything like this bill will get through this Congress, let alone in a timely fashion.

Adam: I guess my own quick thoughts are these: an effective enough speech but a very effective campaign platform — under the circumstances (i.e. that the facts of this economy could make any speech moot). I was particularly impressed with how he framed the basic choice: Should we let the rich keep their tax cuts, or should we give a worker a job? “We can’t afford to do both.” It’s about time he figured out how to simplify the Democratic message. That said, it was (obviously) a blatantly political event, and I was reminded what an unfair advantage incumbents have, commanding TV time and forcing the likes of John Boehner to play statue for 45 minutes and listen to a campaign speech. I vacillated between finding his feisty rhetoric inspiring and grating — because anger is not his usual public posture, it sounded a little forced to me. Though I sympathize with his desperation, I didn’t want to feel it. But l’m with you on the last third. I always find his closing call to the American “belief that we’re all connected” (which has become a trope of his) very satisfying. I wish Americans actually believed it.

Frank: I wish Americans actually believed it, too. (And in addition to Boehner — what about those scattered goofy moments when Biden's expressions seemed like self-parody?) I did like Obama insisting that we don't have the luxury to wait fourteen months to act — and that to do nothing is "not an option." But it was late in the speech — I wish he'd led with it, might have more of an impact.

Adam: Substantively, do you think it mattered what he said? So little of it is going to pass anyway. Any proposal actually impress you?

Frank: It was a politically clever mix of stimulus (never labeled that!) and tax cuts — roughly $200 billion for the former, $250 billion for the latter. Sure, there are some good specifics (particularly on the stimulus side) — but we don't know what, if any, provisions will survive.

Adam: I suppose in some ways the most interesting question to me is what he plans to put in his deficit plan when he presents it in a week and a half. Will it truly be “ambitious,” as he says — will he actually take some political risks? There weren’t any risks in this speech, which in some ways is a testament to its political artfulness, but at some point he’s going to have to take a courageous stand on something — if he’s going hold his own against the raging testosterone of Rick Perry.

Frank: I think his deficit stand is a lose-lose, whatever it is. People care about jobs and the value (or non-value) of their houses, not the deficit, according to polls — no matter how much Republicans and Washington pundits claim that deficits are the number one issue. The Republicans will mock Obama's ideas even if some of them are ideas they have supported in the past. So whatever he does in his deficit plan may be a political sideshow. What matters more is the extent to which he will fight for the substance and vision of government he elucidated last night. Will he, as he promised, take his message "to every corner of the country"? And keep doing it? Will he give 'em hell for more than one speech and more than a week or two? This is the moment, or forever hold his peace.

Adam: Let’s move on to Wednesday’s GOP debate, and cut to the chase: Rick Perry. Most of the commentariat thought he killed himself on Social Security and climate change, with his unequivocal, unapologetic, rabid conservatism. He was in every way the polar extreme to Obama. Do you agree that this is a suicidal stance? Does he seem more vulnerable to you than he did before the debate?

Frank: Yes, the commentariat thought that. But if the goal was to get the Republican nomination, I thought it was a great night for Perry. I think his unapologetic Flintstone-era views on Social Security and climate change are actually the mainstream of the Republican party — and not just in Texas. They are essentially those of The Wall Street Journal editorial page; Perry's only sin was to say them aloud and unequivocally. Some might call that leadership. And who is the alternative to Perry in that field? As Gail Collins correctly pointed out this week, the number one G.O.P. goal is to find any alternative to the flip-flopping, job-killing inventor of Massachusetts Obamacare.

Adam: One thing Perry didn’t seem to me was dumb. He looked like he knew exactly what he was doing, and with the exception of some fumfering around climate change, seemed distinctly un-Bush-like, which is to say, in command. And I’m sure to many Republicans, that is exactly what they’re looking for. His certitude was also — in temperament — what I suspect many Americans of all stripes are looking for. But the substance was further right than I’ve ever heard from a legitimate political contender. So another cut to the chase question: Is he the answer to Obama’s prayers?

Frank: Yes, he seemed much more glib and on top of it than Bush did at this stage (or ever, now that I think of it). Next time Perry will come prepared with the names of those "scientists" who think climate change is a fraud. (By the way, I thought the questioning by Brian Williams and John Harris was way sharper than the norm for these events.) If we are in a second recession, and the Democratic base for various reasons is unenthused, Perry has a shot at winning, shocking as that is to everyone in New York. This election is going to be decided in very few states — and in some cases, states where Perry could outperform Obama. (Though Perry certainly helped Obama in Florida.) One other thing about Perry at the debate that's been lost in the Social Security/climate change chatter — he ridiculed Karl Rove! Pretty gutsy: In that room, Rove is almost as popular as the death penalty.

Adam: A pretty amazing moment — but I’m not sure I’d want to make an enemy of Karl Rove. As Joe Hagen wrote in the magazine recently, he’s got sting in him yet. But it certainly sets up an epic war between the establishment and pirate wings of the party, which should make this a more interesting primary than I’d counted on.

Frank: The Bush establishment is in eclipse. What we don't know is what the Koch Brothers think about Perry — they seem quite to the right of the Bushies, and they have even more money to burn, too.

Adam: It’s going to take a lot of dough to counter the billion Obama is going to throw against Perry on the Social Security “Ponzi scheme” alone, if Perry’s the nominee. I don’t know whether you’d call that “demagoguing” but Democrats have persistently won closely contested elections getting people riled up about Social Security, and I don’t know that they’ve ever had such a potent weapon as Perry’s own words. But maybe you’re right. In this economy, maybe even that won’t work. Seems to me that by any ordinary measure, Perry and Obama are both unelectable. Which will make for what? At the very least, a pretty bloody election.

Frank: A pretty bloody, possibly very close election. Both are indeed unelectable theoretically speaking. Of course Democrats will make a big cause of Social Security, and it will help them, for sure. They'd use Romney's words in anti-Perry ads. But even Social Security may be drowned out as an issue if we're in a double-dip recession by then. And let's not forget that Bush argued for "privatizing" — i.e., ending — Social Security in the 2004 campaign. Despite the Democrats demonizing him for that, and despite the hemorrhaging war in Iraq, he won.

Adam: Thanks for that helpful reminder. And with that, we’ll draw this to a close. If you’ve got questions for Frank, drop a note to Askfrankrich@nymag.com.