Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Communications Breakdown

No one can question Barack Obama's ability to deliver a soaring and inspiring speech. The man is in a rhetorical class that includes Mario Cuomo and perhaps Ronald Reagan. The imagery of the "Yes, We Can" theme that he campaigned with was spectacular, lifting the hopes and dreams of people across the nation and delivering to the President votes that didn't exist in 2004 for John Kerry, who might be the diametric opposite of Obama in speechifying.
But, at the end of the day, if someone is going to talk me down off a ledge, I'd rather it was the Big Dog, President Bill Clinton.  The Man of Hope can tell me how sick I am and prescribe medicine. The Man FROM Hope could heal the sick.
I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Democrats are slightly more likely to think positively about a candidate that Bill Clinton campaigns for, as opposed to one of the countless lucky ones who are getting Barack Obama to wave with them onstage these days, whether they like it or not. Obama is about to head out on a multistate stump tour; Clinton has been at it virtually nonstop all fall.

Clinton really scores among independents, while Obama scores a net minus 27, meaning 12% say they'd be more likely to vote for a candidate campaigning with the current president but 39% say his endorsement would send them voting in the other direction.

Although few Republicans indicated they'd be likely to do the ballot bidding of either Democrat, the negative "I'm voting in the other direction" is much higher for Obama (71%) than for Clinton (46%). Gallup speculates that Obama campaigning for Democrats in one area would also likely boost Republican turnout in automatic antipathy.

A lot of this is perception, of hindsight and perspective. As a friend of mine often said, "I don't miss much of the Clinton years, except the peace and prosperity."

I think the "physician v. healer" metaphor sums up the difference in a nutshell. Obama has an innate ability to perceive the heart of a question and give you a fifteen minute lecture on the history, effects and solutions to the problem under consideration. He can dissect and lecture on practically any topic, and even understand the nuances for different audiences. He sees the battlefield well, in other words, and can draw up a brilliant strategy that takes into account all the factors involved, weighing each one judiciously before pronouncing a solution.

Bill Clinton could see the problem through our eyes, and could understand what we were going through. While his answers may not have been as detailed and comprehensive as Obama's, he spoke the solutions through us, not to us. We felt like he was standing with us, not in front of us, guiding us along the path, not coazing and urging us.

Contrast the two inaugural speeches each gave upon entering the office for the first time. Here's part of Clinton's:

The American people have summoned the change we celebrate today. You have raised your voices in an unmistakable chorus. You have cast your votes in historic numbers. And you have changed the face of Congress, the Presidency, and the political process itself. Yes, you, my fellow Americans, have forced the spring. Now we must do the work the season demands. To that work I now turn with all the authority of my office. I ask the Congress to join with me. But no President, no Congress, no Government can undertake this mission alone.

My fellow Americans, you, too, must play your part in our renewal. I challenge a new generation of young Americans to a season of service: to act on your idealism by helping troubled children, keeping company with those in need, reconnecting our torn communities. There is so much to be done; enough, indeed, for millions of others who are still young in spirit to give of themselves in service, too. In serving, we recognize a simple but powerful truth: We need each other, and we must care for one another.

Now, a similar theme from Obama:

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land, a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights. Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious, and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit, to choose our better history, to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

Obama speaks of statistics and in the negative. Clinton speaks of promise, of true hope. Both lecture people, particularly the young votes, but Obama comes off as a little condescending and analytical, while Clinton comes off with an invitation. Obama speaks to our intellect. Clinton speaks viscerally, evocatively.

Look around you. Look at the political dialogue and dynamic of the nation. Which do you think is going to resonate better with a frightened people?

It's interesting, I had not noted the similarity in the country's predicament between the two eras before. Obama of course inherited a far worse position than Clinton had, to be sure. That may have coloured his thinking a little.

None of this is meant to suggest that Obama's vision is less than Clinton's or that Clinton, as great a President as he was, is better or worse than Obama. Each has strengths and weaknesses, but I know that if I was running for office, I'd want Bill Clinton introducing me over Obama six days of the week and twice on Sundays.