The Public Eye:Calling Obama the Fighter

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday September 14, 2010 - 10:23:00 AM

Each day it’s becoming more apparent that Democrats are headed for a whipping on November 2nd unless they get their act together. While it’s Barack Obama’s job to rally voters, a lot of Dems aren’t sure he can do it. We feel that somewhere over the course of the last 20 months, Obama lost his mojo and, as a result, doesn’t remember what he stands for or what the Democratic Party stands for. If Dems are going to pull victory out of the fire, we’re going to have to see passion from Obama; he’s going to have to take off his gloves and fight.


Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. identified Obama’s central problem: “The president's efforts to lay down a consistent rationale, argument and philosophy have been sporadic. He has created a vacuum…” The Candidate who many of us believed was a master communicator has failed, as President, to articulate his vision for the US.


As Drew Westen and George Lakoff observe, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party have lost control of the national narrative. Instead of being told that government can be a vital force for good, voters are inundated with conservative messages that government is the problem. Instead of being reminded that too much economic inequality is a bad thing, that it undermines our economy and democracy and violates our moral principles, voters are told taxation is unfair and beguiled by the failed promise of trickle-down economics. Instead of being informed that the success of the United States has been based upon a strong public enterprise and a humane form of capitalism, voters are seduced by the image of an open market and privatization of public services.


It’s not too late for President Obama to seize control of the national narrative, but many of us are beginning to doubt whether he has the stomach for it.


Academic and political consultant Drew Westen argued that Obama’s job is apparent: “What Democrats have needed to offer the American people is a clear narrative about what and who led our country to the mess in which we find ourselves today and a clear vision of what and who will lead us out.”


Academic and political consultant George Lakoff agreed with Westen, adding it’s vital to recognize the role of values: “Candidate Obama made the case that American is, and has always been, fundamentally about Americans caring about each other and acting responsibly on that care… Winning this election will require the right policies and actions, but it will also require moral leadership with honest, morally-based messaging.”


There are several competing theories about why Barack Obama has lost control of the national narrative. One blames his staff and suggests that Obama got good advice during the campaign but bad advice from the presidential staff. For the past twenty months, the economy has been the central issue and the President lost control of that narrative because he listened to the wrong guys.


Another theory argues that once he became President, Obama received poor communication advice. The White House lost control of the national narrative because they wandered into wonk land and forgot the importance of framing their agenda in terms of vision and values.


The most common theory is that the problem lies within Barack Obama. One explanation is that Obama is by nature a conciliatory person and has had a hard time accepting that he’s in a situation where his adversaries have no interest in finding common ground. Another is that Barack believes that Americans elected him to set a new moral tone in Washington and try to bring the two Parties together. Still another explanation is that Obama is an intellectual and doesn’t have the taste for street fighting that’s characteristic of successful American politicians; he’s soft.


There’s a simpler explanation: Barack is an idealist. He believes in what Robert Reich identified as a core American myth: the benevolent community, the story of neighbors and friends who roll up their sleeves and pitch in for the common good


But sometimes idealism isn’t enough. Reich identified a flip side of the tale of the benevolent community: the story of the mob at the gates; the forces of darkness that threaten American democracy. One of the differences between an idealist and a realist is recognition that sometimes we have to fight to keep the mob from storming the gates. That’s what happened after Pearl Harbor.


That’s what needs to happen in the Fall of 2010. Barack has to become a realist.


Because of blind political ambition and staggering stupidity, Republicans have unleashed the forces of darkness and now the Tea Party mob is hammering at the gates of America.


It’s good that Barack Obama is an idealist. It’s good that he wants to be a conciliator, believes that there should be a new moral tone in Washington. But now is the time for realism. Now is the time for the President to stand at America’s gates and defend us from an angry, hate-filled, nihilistic mob. Now is the time for Obama the fighter.


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at