Thursday, October 30, 2008

A nation's education: Obama's conversation

James Fallows, cataloging Obama's communication skills, puts foremost his ability to be "serious in trying to present a main idea." To that I would add a rare ability to present a complex idea in understandable terms - to break it down, to present it as a narrative or a lay down a cause-and-effect chain. A few examples, in a stroll down memory lane:

1. How the bailout will help ordinary people - from the final debate:

Well, Oliver, first, let me tell you what's in the rescue package for you. Right now, the credit markets are frozen up and what that means, as a practical matter, is that small businesses and some large businesses just can't get loans.

If they can't get a loan, that means that they can't make payroll. If they can't make payroll, then they may end up having to shut their doors and lay people off.

And if you imagine just one company trying to deal with that, now imagine a million companies all across the country.

So it could end up having an adverse effect on everybody, and that's why we had to take action. But we shouldn't have been there in the first place.

2. The strategic case for drawing down forces in Iraq - from the first Obama-McCain debate:
Look, over the last eight years, this administration, along with Senator McCain, have been solely focused on Iraq. That has been their priority. That has been where all our resources have gone.

In the meantime, bin Laden is still out there. He is not captured. He is not killed. Al Qaeda is resurgent.

In the meantime, we've got challenges, for example, with China, where we are borrowing billions of dollars. They now hold a trillion dollars' worth of our debt. And they are active in countries like -- in regions like Latin America, and Asia, and Africa. They are -- the conspicuousness of their presence is only matched by our absence, because we've been focused on Iraq.

We have weakened our capacity to project power around the world because we have viewed everything through this single lens, not to mention, look at our economy. We are now spending $10 billion or more every month.

And that means we can't provide health care to people who need it. We can't invest in science and technology, which will determine whether or not we are going to be competitive in the long term.

There has never been a country on Earth that saw its economy decline and yet maintained its military superiority. So this is a national security issue.

3. Why Wall Street blew up -- from the March 27 speech at Cooper Union:
...we have deregulated the financial services sector, and we face another crisis. A regulatory structure set up for banks in the 1930s needed to change because the nature of business has changed. But by the time the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed in 1999, the $300 million lobbying effort that drove deregulation was more about facilitating mergers than creating an efficient regulatory framework.

Since then, we have overseen 21st century innovation – including the aggressive introduction of new and complex financial instruments like hedge funds and non-bank financial companies – with outdated 20th century regulatory tools. New conflicts of interest recalled the worst excesses of the past – like the outrageous news that we learned just yesterday of KPMG allowing a lender to report profits instead of losses, so that both parties could make a quick buck. Not surprisingly, the regulatory environment failed to keep pace. When subprime mortgage lending took a reckless and unsustainable turn, a patchwork of regulators were unable or unwilling to protect the American people.

The policies of the Bush Administration threw the economy further out of balance. Tax cuts without end for the wealthiest Americans. A trillion dollar war in Iraq that didn't need to be fought, paid for with deficit spending and borrowing from foreign creditors like China. A complete disdain for pay-as-you-go budgeting – coupled with a generally scornful attitude towards oversight and enforcement – allowed far too many to put short-term gain ahead of long term consequences. The American economy was bound to suffer a painful correction, and policymakers found themselves with fewer resources to deal with the consequences.

Today, those consequences are clear. I see them in every corner of our great country, as families face foreclosure and rising costs. I seem them in towns across America, where a credit crisis threatens the ability of students to get loans, and states can't finance infrastructure projects. I see them here in Manhattan, where one of our biggest investment banks had to be bailed out, and the Fed opened its discount window to a host of new institutions with unprecedented implications we have yet to appreciate. When all is said and done, losses will be in the many hundreds of billions. What was bad for Main Street was bad for Wall Street. Pain trickled up.

4. On the need for soft power - March 19 in Fayetteville, N.C.:

What lies in the heart of a child in Pakistan matters as much as the airplanes we sell her government. What's in the head of a scientist from Russia can be as lethal as a plutonium reactor in Yongbyon. What's whispered in refugee camps in Chad can be as dangerous as a dictator's bluster. These are the neglected landscapes of the 21st century, where technology and extremism empower individuals just as they give governments the ability to repress them; where the ancient divides of region and religion wash into the swift currents of globalization.

5. On the role of race in politics - Philadelphia, March 18:

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many...
And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
6. And finally, on the role of rhetoric in democracy -- January 5, ABC Democratic debate. Challenged--not for the last time!--about being more talk than action, Obama meditated aloud about how change works:
Look, I think it's easier to be cynical and just say, "You know what, it can't be done because Washington's designed to resist change." But in fact there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better, and I think we're in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes -- not incremental changes, not small changes.

I actually give Bill Clinton enormous credit for having balanced those budgets during those years. It did take political courage for him to do that. But we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done.

And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.
When challenged on his relatively slight record, Obama has often said, "look at my campaign." He's meant mainly that the campaign is proof of his executive ability. But looking at his campaign speaks also to the role of rhetoric in getting things done. Part of Obama's platform is to change the conduct of our politics, and in large measure he's already done that. For some twenty months, he has educated and elevated the nation. He's made us believe again that we can have a meaningful debate. He's carried on a conversation among adults -- above and below the shouting.

The nation already owes Obama an incalculable debt.


  1. Good post.

    Let me add this: the ability to clearly articulate a message comes only after you have understood the topic at a deep level. And that's important: because how is the next President going to solve America's problems if he doesn't fully understand them?

    I've heard it said that a teacher needs to know ten times as much as she is going to communicate when she's lecturing her students. If she doesn't have that extra 90% of her knowledge in reserve, she can't make good decisions about how to structure the lecture, how to prioritize what topics to include and which to leave out, how to make connections between this thing and that thing to convey some idea of the bigger picture.

    When I see Obama explaining ideas so effectively, I know he possesses a real mastery of the issues. And that's going to be crucial when he's making a difficult, high-stakes decision; or when he's trying to gain public support for a controversial but necessary initiative; or when he's trying to get reluctant Sentators or members of Congress onside to move his agenda forward.

    So Obama's ability to communicate demonstrates his deep knowledge of the issues; and his deep knowledge of the issues is going to make a decisive difference when it comes time for him to govern.

  2. The challenges to Senator Obama's record always intrigue me. With 8 years as a legislator, Obama has 6 years more experience than Abraham Lincoln had when he was elected President.

  3. Peter: Lincoln served four two-year terms in the Illinois State Legislature.