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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama and Values-Based Messaging

The one sure thing about Barack Obama’s inaugural address is that it increased tensions within the progressive coalition about his taste for “bipartisanship” (or “post-partisanship,” if you prefer). Despite passages in the speech that were a very direct repudiation of the Bush administration, and a few strikingly progressive flourishes (e.g., the shout-out to religious “unbelievers”), the overall tenor continued his long rhetorical preoccupation with embracing values usually considered conservative as well as liberal, and deriding the partisan fights in Washington (this time in the Pauline phrase “childish things”).
As has almost always been the case with Obama, observers have reached very different conclusions when listening to him in the inaugural speech and in other recent utterances. Some conservatives profess themselves as pleased or even charmed by his invocation of “conservative” values like hard work, personal and mutual responsibility, sacrifice and discipline, even as they (typically) warn he may not really believe in them. Some progressives continue to be alarmed by his post-partisan talk, and even more (notably both Marie Coco and Michael Crowley in separate pieces today) suggest it’s a habit that will soon expire in the partisan exigencies of Washington. A few have divined somewhat less conventional ideological leanings in Obama; both Alan Wolfe and E.J. Dionne have noted the communitarian vein that runs deep through Obama’s rhetoric.
My own take is based on my ten-plus-years of facilitating a leadership training program for elected officials called “Values-Based Messaging” under the auspices of the Democratic Leadership Council. Unlike some of the other elements of the DLC’s agenda over the years, this training was never controversial, and has been very popular with a wide array of state and local Democrats from across the ideological spectrum, often as a party unity exercise in state legislative caucuses. To make a long story short, its central insight is that progressives in politics and government can and should build the largest possible audience for our more partisan policy goals and individual programs by embracing broadly-shared values that we often take for granted, but don’t articulate, making us vulnerable to the kinds of conservative stereotypes that have been so effective in the past.
This larger audience may begin to shrink once bold policy goals and detailed programs are advanced. But it definitely helps, and just as importantly, roots progressive programs in values and goals the public understands, while subtly undermining the invidious belief that Democrats represent government, rather than bending government to the popular will. It’s a simple way to occupy the political high ground and expose the narrow values base of the Right.
Whatever you think of this or that speech, Barack Obama is clearly a master of values-based messaging. And the inaugural address did not simply embrace broadly shared values beyond those usually emphasized by progressives; he went out of his way to argue that values often placed in opposition to each other are both reconcilable and essential (e.g., liberty and security, and public-sector activism and “free” markets). This may sound dangerously like Third Wayism to many progressives, but if reflects the fact that big majorities of the American people do in fact embrace such “contradictory” values, and do not want to see them vanquished or ignored.
This is probably why the public gave very positive ratings to the inaugural address and the accompanying events, even as most pundits panned it. And more generally, it is why Obama’s speechifying–so often criticized as “vague” or “abstract” by the punditocracy– resonates well with the public. There’s a time for ten-point platforms in political communications, but it’s essential to open the door to listeners by convincing them you live in the same “vague” and “abstract” moral universe that they inhabit.
Obama’s inaugural address, like all his speeches, did move into the territory of big policy goals as well as values, and on this front, he has some enormous advantages. Recent events have made reviving the economy an overriding policy goal for virtually all Americans, which is why Obama’s “ideas” for a stimulus package are gaining such strong popular support even as the details remain hazy to most people. But the inevitable drop-off of public support for those details will likely be smaller than would otherwise be the case thanks to Obama’s determination to set the table so carefully with communications about values and big goals.
Moreover, Obama’s second-order policy goals–such as achieving universal health coverage and radically changing the energy system–are very popular with the public across party lines, and the fact that many, and probably a majority, of Republican politicians and conservative gabbers don’t support those goals creates a tremendous partisan opportunity for Obama and Democrats moving forward. Indeed, the past Democratic tendency to talk about, say, health care, in terms of specific proposals like a Patient’s Bill of Rights and a prescription drug benefit has long enabled Republicans to blur partisan differences and disguise their own reactionary radicalism on health care.
Even the big policy goal that Obama occasionally mentions to the consternation of many progressives–“entitlement reform”–has, at the abstract level–a lot of public support. And the common assumption that Obama is playing on conservative turf by mentioning the subject probably sells him short, and reflects the age-old Democratic habit of conceding whole areas of public policy to the opposition. If, say, he can make Social Security more progressive, while folding Medicare into a universal health system, he will have taken away a common conservtive talking point without conceding anything.
This is why I’ve argued that Obama’s meta-political strategy, and the underpinning of his rhetoric about partisanship, represents “grassroots bipartisanship”–an effort to build public support for a progressive agenda beyond the current ranks of the Democratic rank-and-file, crafted as a thoroughgoing reform of Washington, not simply as a expulsion of the hated GOP. You can call it “pragmatism” or “centrism” or “post-partisanship” if you like, but it mainly represents a sensible approach to the preeminently appropriate task of tearing down the old partisan paradigm and rebuilding a new one that can command an enduring majority in support of a progressive agenda. It should at least be given a fighting chance.

One comment on “Obama and Values-Based Messaging

  1. Cugel on

    This is a good and logical summary Ed. In order to govern effectively under the current environment, this is EXACTLY what Obama needs to do. He’s very pragmatic in this regard and a successful Obama administration is the tide that lifts all boats and makes possible what was impossible before.
    Government however, can do only those things that an organized lobbying effort will support. Thus, it’s possible for Obama to talk about a green economy, ending global warming, and even card-check, because there are strong forces lobbying for these outcomes.
    What Progressives want however, is what Republicans accomplished in the 1980s — to completely reshape the political spectrum, moving it to the left as Conservatives moved it to the right, narrowing what government could accomplish and forcing all debate into the straight-jacket of “tax cuts” “entitlement reform” and “strong defense.”
    And this can only be accomplished by changing the media — which overwhelmingly is NOT going to give Progressive ideas a fair hearing. Radio and mainstream TV is dominated by the right wing and this is a real problem that we have only begun to address.
    Even today we can’t have an honest debate about issues. No American politician can get up and say “there’s nothing wrong with social security except that we keep robbing the SS Trust Fund in order to pay for a bloated military and foreign wars of choice.”
    In the 1970s it was possible for “responsible politicians” to express this view without being instantly dismissed as part of some radical fringe. McGovern even ran on these ideas. Although he lost many in Congress openly espoused them.
    By the mid 80’s the media scorn for “pacifism” and “isolationism” in the media was complete — and Progressive ideas were branded as the crazy notions of the left, not to be taken seriously — NOT spending more on our military than the entire rest of the earth put together, and opposition to the idea that the US can simply attack anyone anywhere in the world whenever it wants to, without regard for what the rest of the world might think, for instance.
    THAT problem still remains as huge as it was in 1981. Worse, because media consolidation has made diversity of opinion ever scarcer in the board-rooms and newsrooms of mainstream media.
    Obama couldn’t say: “we should make deep cuts in our military spending, and use the money to build a ecologically and socially sustainable economy at home.” He would be instantly branded as a crackpot by the MSM.
    We have representation on the internet, but we haven’t BEGUN to reverse decades of decay on the over-the-air and cable media.


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