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The Message Is the Message

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“The truth is, it doesn’t take much,” says Lou Cannon, the former Washington Post reporter and one of Reagan’s ablest biographers. “If the president’s a gentleman and his chief of staff returns your calls … ” he trails off. Reagan was such a man, and Jim Baker returned those calls, same as Obama and Emanuel now. “It goes a long way,” he finally says. “We’re like schoolgirls.”

Almost all presidents wake up one morning to discover that their greatest strength has become their greatest liability. Think of Reagan’s sunniness, which eventually became a signifier of his vacuity, or Clinton’s charisma, which at his weakest moment led to an act of seduction that led to his impeachment. In the case of Barack Obama, it’s his passion for oratory that leaves him most vulnerable to future criticism. If he manages to genuinely revive the economy or pass a decent health-care bill, great—the public will be thrilled to hear from him for a long time to come. But if he doesn’t, one could imagine people eventually souring on his many public appearances: Dear God, not another speech.

Obama, painfully aware of this hazard, is trying hard to make sure he matches rhetoric with action. Knowing that none of his agenda, health care especially, will pass without significant involvement from the players on the Hill, he’s filled the White House with former congressional staffers and ceded much of the bill-writing power to Congress itself. He’s also made Emanuel, a man metabolically incapable of sitting still (one of his favorite expressions is “putting points on the board”), one of the most powerful White House chiefs of staff in modern history.

It may well be enough. But the odds are still long. Which means it’s worth asking: What will we be left with if the president can’t meet his ambitious policy goals?

We’ll be left with Obama’s messages themselves. They’re no substitute for universal health care, obviously, or a robust economy. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Obama’s presidency is that he’s trying to change our minds as much as our policies. He’s trying to change our conception of both ourselves and our country, as well as the way outsiders perceive us. He’s trying nothing less than to realign American values.

As a former law professor, Obama sees the presidency as a classroom. (Which is why he didn’t apologize for weighing in on the arrest of Professor Gates a couple of weeks ago, explaining it could be “a teachable moment.”) Since his community-organizing days, he’s recognized the value of an informed citizenry. In a way, those meetings he held on Chicago’s South Side all those years ago were just proto-versions of his seminar-style town halls today. “With Clinton, we’d have town meetings too, but it was different,” says Stan Greenberg, Clinton’s former pollster. “We were rallying support, and he’d get energy from those. Whereas Obama’s involved in an educative process with voters, trying to explain the problem and show what he’s doing.”

To Obama, educating Americans doesn’t simply mean demystifying the legislative process or walking them through the rationale for his policies. It means offering them a kind of moral instruction, one that reshapes their ideas about what’s required of them—industry, responsibility, empathy, humility—and what’s required of the government (the same). These themes were apparent from the moment he began his inaugural address, when he called our weak economy “a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare our nation for a new age.” He went on to quote Corinthians—that it was time for our nation to “set aside childish things”—and exhorted us all to earn our greatness, rather than opt for shortcuts.

After years of excess, in other words, Obama—lean and disciplined, a father of two young children—was here to tell us that the egoism and exceptionalism of the boom and boomer years were over. Government was no longer an enabling sidekick to our years-long bender. It was a parent, one whose primary objective was to instill responsibility and empathy in its citizens, and to provide the same in return. As Lakoff notes, Obama specifically likened government to a parent in his 2008 Father’s Day address in Chicago, when he told the assembled audience first to set an example of excellence for their children—“Don’t just sit in the house and watch SportsCenter all weekend long”—and second to remind them to look at the world through others’ eyes. “That’s our responsibility as fathers,” he said. “And by the way, it’s a responsibility that also extends to Washington.” At the time, most of the press examined this speech through the prism of racial politics, believing they were watching a black presidential candidate gingerly walk the minefield of speaking honestly to a black audience while simultaneously trying to win over a majority-white electorate. Few considered that Obama may have been outlining his vision of government as a whole.


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