Bob Garfield

Obama Speech Was to Congress, but Target Was Voters

Might Be World's Worst Negotiator, but Still a Very Good Salesman

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Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield

Who wrote this speech ... Claude Hopkins?

Seldom has a presidential address so hinged on a call to action. How many times did President Barack Obama admonish Congress to pass his proposed jobs bill? I counted 22 . Twenty-two, an amount of repetition falling somewhere between rhetorical emphasis and obsessive-compulsive disorder. If this presidency thing doesn't work out -- and so far it hasn't, especially -- the man has a bright future on QVC.

Anyway, surely it's a lot easier to sell ceramic dogs to shut-ins than anything branded "Obama" to the House of Representatives.

Presuming, that is , that House Republicans were actually the targets of Thursday's pitch for the variety pack of familiar stimulus provisions the administration has repackaged as the American Jobs Act.

It is certainly possible that the president -- having failed to move the Party of No off the dime with previous appeals -- actually believed that this time would be different. Maybe he hoped that a relatively modest package of tax breaks, public-works projects, mends to the ruptured safety net and tax hikes for the richest of the rich would somehow free the merely ideologically rigid majority of the GOP from the vise grip of the truly reactionary Tea Party minority.

Anything's possible. After all, Rick Perry is a presidential front-runner, and he doesn't believe in either science or Social Security.

So when Obama referred to the vast ideological differences between the parties and speculated about the Republicans' unshakable opposition, he may conceivably have been giving the benefit of the doubt between principle and reckless political cynicism. "Maybe," the president mused, "some of you have decided that those differences are so great that we can only resolve them at the ballot box."

That wasn't as conciliatory as it sounds. Just because he is the world's worst negotiator doesn't mean he's stopped being a very good salesman. The smart money says he wasn't selling to the crowd seated before him anymore than his brief lecture on the benefits of a strong national government (the G.I. bill, the interstate highway system, land-grant universities, the internet, Medicare) had been meant for the assembled legislature. After "ballot box," the very next words out of Obama's mouth exposed the actual target audience: independent voters.

"But know this," the president declared: "The next election is 14 months away. The people who sent us here -- the people who hired us to work for them -- they don't have the luxury of waiting 14 months. Some of them are living week to week, paycheck to paycheck, even day to day. They need help, and they need it now."

Every Republican in the room knew exactly what that meant, and it wasn't a call to action; it was a threat. Fail to pass the American jobs bill and know that every day for the next 14 months every Democrat in every congressional race, and Obama himself, will remind the electorate about who voted against Jobs. But just in case the threat wasn't clear, the suddenly pugnacious commander in chief pulled out his social strategy:

"I also ask every American who agrees to lift your voice and tell the people who are gathered here tonight that you want action now. Tell Washington that doing nothing is not an option. Remind us that if we act as one nation, and one people, we have it within our power to meet this challenge."

It's still not clear how an unpopular president in the midst of a possible double-dip recession will fare against opponents promising no taxes ever, but you've got to hand it to Obama. He's still clinging to a lead against any hypothetical GOP contender and, last week, he showed he knows how to close.

To quote Blake -- not William, but the Alec Baldwin character in "Glengarry Glen Ross": Leads are for closers.

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