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The Message Is the Message

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The values of responsibility and empathy frame his speeches to this day. Last summer, in the Israeli town of Sderot, he empathized with the citizens who’d been shelled: “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.” This summer, in Cairo, he empathized with the Palestinians: “For more than 60 years, they’ve endured the pain of dislocation,” he said. “And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” Two weeks ago, during his health-care conference, he spoke of our larger obligations to those without health care, implying it would be immoral to deny them. “This isn’t about me,” Obama said. “This is about every family, every business, and every taxpayer who continues to shoulder the burden … They’re counting on us to get this done … and we can’t let them down.” Let them down, he seemed to be saying, and it’s on you.

It’s an old-fashioned thing to do, moral instruction. Obama’s propensity for it may have something to do with why people perceive him as humorless or prim. It’s not even clear the public’s amenable to it. People may just want their jobs back and the Dow to return to 14,000. Crises have a way of inspiring magical thinking, especially when there’s no food in the larder or money in the bank.

But there are other signs that Obama’s words might be having an impact. According to a Gallup poll from last week, a plurality of Americans believe that health-care reform will cost them more money and result in worse care for themselves. At first blush, these results don’t look good, because they suggest that one of Obama’s messages—that reforming health care will rein in costs and improve services for everyone—has gotten lost. That’s how most pundits played it. But that poll contained another interesting result: The plurality of respondents also said they believed that health-care reform would result in a higher quality of care for the nation overall. That doesn’t mean they liked Obama’s plan. It doesn’t mean they’ll be inclined to support it. But would the electorate have even believed such a thing sixteen years ago, when the Clintons first tried to reform the system? I’m guessing not. I’m guessing they’d have said that universal health care meant a disaster for everyone.

At the very least, Obama has somehow impressed upon people that universal access at least nets to the common good.

“Obama has to go out there on a regular basis so that people will eventually have a different idea of what government and the country is about,” says Lakoff. “That can’t happen overnight. It’s slow, day after day.”

It’s a steady beat of press conferences and town halls and YouTube addresses—a communications lollapalooza, rain or shine. It’s messaging not just as a means to an end, but as a kind of end itself. Three weeks ago, Obama wrote his second op-ed about the economy for the Washington Post. It drew a few raised eyebrows from the blogosphere, as if repeating this gesture so early in his presidency were trivializing his position. But the only surprise—not even a surprise, really, so much as inadvertent note of comedy—was the understated bio that ran below: The writer is president of the United States.


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