Obama rode in on his vaunted oratorical abilities, but the kind of ability we fell in love with him for is no longer of any use. The calls for unity, the echoes of Martin Luther King Jr., the rising above it all — it was great then, and maybe there will be a time for more of it in some years. But only after some new things have happened. And if they’re going to, Obama needs to retool his oratorical chops for a new style. I highly suspect that he’s up to it.
The present-day Republican establishment, with its know-nothing ideology and blithe absence of concern for most American human beings, has become tragically similar to the famously inert, heartless Senate of the Gilded Age, which for decades killed almost all progressive legislation even when it had been carefully hammered out in the House. The problem continued into the 1960s, before which the Senate was run by old-style Southern Democrat committee chairmen who for generations resisted, among other things, serious race-based legislation.
The president had no way of knowing that he would be up against as hollow-hearted and anti-intellectual a contingent as the Tea Partiers. But as of the debt-ceiling negotiations, it has become clear to all of us — Obama included — that we’re not going to be rising above much of anything anytime soon.
It’s time for the president to fight fire with fire, and he can accomplish much of it with a new way of talking. Obama needs to take a cue from the way even top-level politicians communicate in Parliament debates in the United Kingdom: a feisty, often almost heckling style of debate and address in which words and phraseology are wielded as weapons.
We saw hints in his jobs speech two weeks ago that the president is finally understanding this. “I know that some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live,” he addressed to a particular stripe of Republican, with a quiet smirk.
Good line. Many of them must have felt a touch silly having that fact pinned overtly upon them. Many people going along to get along would be shocked to have someone follow them all day for a week with a mirror so that they could watch themselves acting as they do.
Students working in a classroom with a large mirror on the wall have been shown to perform better. This kind of rhetoric can help change people, change minds and thus foster change.
Mr. President, along these lines, please start calling some names. This week’s callout to Speaker of the House John Boehner was a good start, when you proclaimed about his intransigence: “That’s not smart. It’s not right.” The Republicans have had no compunction about lobbing dirt at you; at this point you must do some of the same to avoid seeming — and thus, in many ways, being — weak.