Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

10 October 2012

Can Obama Fight?

[Today I’ve taken the unusual step of upstaging a post on the same day it first published. After reading what follows, people should understand why. My earlier post analyzing the hatchet job on the President that PBS aired last night is here.]

After nearly four years of Obama’s presidency, the three-word question “can he fight?” is still unanswered. The answer will determine whether he remains in office.

He can fight for our country, as everyone knows. His actions against terrorists have been strong and effective and have boosted his public image. As PBS’ recent hatchet job put it—turning all his virtues against him—he’s the only Nobel Peace Prize winner with a kill list. He is, after all, the leader who got bin Laden when his two predecessors couldn’t.

So the unanswered question is not whether Obama will fight for country. There’s no doubt about that. It’s whether he will fight for himself.

The people who care about policy and ideas have long ago decided. My wife and I could have voted a year ago and it wouldn’t have made any difference. The same is true of the few ardent Mitt supporters and the many conservative ideologues who are lukewarm on Mitt. Many thinkers and believers on both sides have already voted.

What’s left is the red-meat people. They’re the ones for whom facts and ideas mean nothing. They’re the reason why Mitt and the GOP can play so fast and loose with the truth, then change their stances from week to week, even hour to hour, and still have a good chance of winning.

So the thinkers among us had better close our eyes and cover our ears for the rest of the campaign. It’s going to be all emotion, not reason, from here on in.

In theory, the president can win such a contest. His emotional intelligence is off the scale, much higher than Mitt’s. At least he doesn’t make such emotionally stupid gaffes. But there is one emotion that Obama has never expressed, at least in public: anger.

Unfortunately for a man whose entire persona is reason, compromise, and conciliation, these truths doesn’t bode well for his re-election.

Remaining undecided voters have well-justified doubts whether Mitt is on their side. But Mitt now has proved himself a fighter. So they’re going to ask themselves another simple question: “if Obama won’t stick up for himself, will he stick up for us? Or had we better stay home or vote for Mitt and hope for trickle-down?”

Obama’s been tarred as partisan by people who declared making him fail their chief goal just days after his inauguration. He’s got to call them out.

He’s been called a racist by people whose party—for decades—has followed Nixon’s Southern Strategy. They’ve backed him into a corner where he can’t even hint at race without them playing the “race card” first. He’s got to call them out.

He’s just endured a long campaign season in which Mitt has called him out every day—incorrectly and illogically—as a failure, a wimp and a bad leader. The constant drumbeat of hostility and criticism has been numbing, so much so that people are forgetting that Mitt has no concrete plans of his own.

So Obama has got to call Mitt out as a liar, a charlatan, a jerk and a shape-shifter without a soul. He can do it as politely as Mitt vilifies him, but he’s got to have some fire in his voice.

So far, the President has done none of these things. So people are starting to wonder whether he’s human.

Apparently only Star-Trek groupies like me love Spock. And the Spock-lovers have already made up their minds. The red-meat people don’t even know who Spock is.

From the very beginning of Obama’s presidency, the GOP strategy has had three gut-level elements: (1) to make him fail, (2) to blame him for its own failures, and (3) to tar him as not “one of us.” It has had partial success in all three. Whether its success continues will decide this election.

Making Obama fail has been the least successful strategy. He has been a clever and resourceful leader, accomplishing much good by using all his considerable intelligence, the loyalty and hope he inspires, and the power of his office. But the people who care about accomplishments, let alone can list them accurately, are not the ones he has to reach now.

Astoundingly, the GOP has had much greater success in blaming Obama for its own failures. So he has to remind them who Dubya was, how Dubya’s catastrophic stupidity cause two needless wars and devastated the global economy, and how Mitt wants to tread the very same path. Then he has to remind them, again and again, what a catastrophe he inherited and how the GOP, after the first depression-avoiding stimulus, stubbornly refused to help.

But the last strategy—“he’s not one of us”—is probably the most important from here on. The remaining undecided voters are the ones for whom tribalism matters most.

Obama won’t ever reach overt racists and shouldn’t even try. He’s going to lose many unconscious racists simply because three years of unrelenting bashing have buried their unconscious racism so deeply that they sincerely think it’s all about policy. But there’s a whole group of people who have little racism, conscious or unconscious, who just don’t understand Obama.

When someone hits them, they hit back. They may not be the toughest or most courageous people on the block. But they can’t imagine themselves taking the constant abuse the President has taken for nearly four years and not fighting back.

So they look at him and think, “he’s not one of us.” The reason is not his coffee color. It’s not his superb education and intelligence, which go deeper and higher than they could ever imagine. It’s that fact that he has let himself be a punching bag for so long that he doesn’t quite seem human.

In the first debate, the shape-shifting Great Salesman looked the President straight in they eye and called him out. He questioned his leadership, policies and skill, again and again. The President seldom looked at Mitt, only in fleeting glances.

If Obama can bring himself to look Mitt in the eye and call him out, with steel in his own voice and his bearing, he will win this election. For now it’s all about the music, not the words. If Obama can’t, he will soon no longer be President.

That’s a lot to ask of a man who’s built his entire political career and persona on cooperation, conciliation and reason. It’s a lot to ask of a biracial man who won the White House in a still-racist nation by not seeming the “angry black” of GOP lies and caricature.

But he’s got to do it. If he doesn’t, he will lose the chance to cooperate, conciliate and reason further. He will lose the chance to bring Iran to heel peacefully with a strategy of sanctions, which now appear to be working. And under an egotist whose lofty faith in himself has little justification—let alone a party of extremists—our country will go straight to hell.

So if Obama won’t do it for himself, he should do it for the people and the country he so genuinely loves. Otherwise, he won’t win.

P.S. When I learned that the President’s “sparring partner” for the debates had been John Kerry, I nearly fell out of my chair. The only worse sparring partner I could imagine would be Dick Lugar, the President’s mentor in the Senate, whose mildness and lack of fight lost us one of the best senators we had.

If the Dems are serious about winning this election, they should get someone like Al Sharpton to spar with the President. Sharpton can be both tough and mean, and his resentment toward Obama for being too “white” might fuel some genuine fireworks.

Jesse Jackson would be another good choice. He’s a fellow Chicagoan and a big man like Mitt, and he once spoke about castrating Obama. Now there’s a man with the fire to get the adrenalin up, which Obama will need to win the debates.

It will be hard to find someone who can mimic the rare combination of emotional distaste and policy disdain for the President that fuels the GOP’s desire to get rid of him at all costs. But one thing is abundantly clear: John Kerry is not the right man. He’s a good public servant but not that good an actor. And the last thing the President needs is an exemplar whose own lack of fight cost him the White House.



  • At Thu Oct 11, 07:47:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Maqx said…

    Yes he can!

    Though he needs to shed his "handlers" and be the inspirational speaker he is. I saw this building up from the Dem Convention when they had the speakers preceding Obama do all the political punching and paraded him out with a so-so speech that stayed above the dirty politicking that preceded him. That worked at the convention. It does not work in a 1:1 debate.

    People care about people who care at a fundamental and human level. Mitt showed he cared during the debate - though what for is a bit dubious. At a gut level, that connects with many people.

    The debates are job interviews for the candidates. They are the only time that voters can assess both candidates as interacting humans in 90 minutes. It's like interviewing 2 job candidates with 45 min each or even simultaneously. As a manager, I can attest to the idea that with 2 candidates, the one that shows more care for the job stands out regardless of their qualifications. In many cases, you prefer the caring worker vs the one that does not. I've often picked less experienced people that show care and earnestness over those with experience and credentials if I feel the caring candidate can learn the academic stuff and put his heart into the job.

    So there is what Barack has to do. Show he cares and back it up with facts and actions that connect with American people. He did that to get to this point, he has to stop the campaign handlers from neutering that instinct. Plain and simple.

    My debate prep tips:

    1. Setup five focus groups.
    2. Build a mockup of the debate stage/environment.
    3. Setup live cameras and microphones that replicate the debate environment.
    4. Get other debaters besides Kerry to debate the President. (Slippery court attorneys would do nicely) Have the focus groups watch the debates.

    5. Set a group (focus group 1) in the mock debate arena to watch the debate with indifferent or cautious body language directed towards the President.

    6. Focus group 2 watches the debate in a separate room with different camera angles - BUT -without sound. They will watch for body language.

    7. Focus group 3 listens to the debate without video. They will listen to the intonation of speech.

    8. Focus group 4 watches and listens with video and audio.
    The multimedia group.

    9. Focus group 5 reads a transcript of the debate as it plays out. They will read for accuracy and shortness of explanations.

    10. Allow the focus groups to provide honest and anonymous feedback of what they saw and heard during the sessions.

  • At Mon Oct 15, 10:42:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Maqx,

    These are great suggestions, so much so that I’m sorry I’m posting them late!

    Unfortunately, they probably would be too late even if I had posted them immediately. It takes time (and money!) to prepare the setups you suggest. Maybe it’ll be done by the third debate.

    If Obama can let his real self shine out, with real-time knowledge of what real people care about (through your focus groups, for example), I have no doubt he will win. Obama’s empathy and emotional intelligence are orders of magnitude higher than Mitt’s.

    Although I’m a policy nerd, I think it’s all about emotion and trust now. The remaining undecideds aren’t going to care about numbers, except maybe the largest and least disputed. They care about who’s on their side.

    Obama needs to do at least as well as Biden did on Medicare/Social Security and the right to choose. He also needs to undercut what I call the GOP’s “chutzpah” campaign—blaming Obama for all the disasters that Dubya caused and for the GOP’s lockstep obstruction since the first stimulus.

    If the President can do just those two things, I have no doubt he will win.




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