Obama Writes His Thesis Statement

By Marc Ambinder

This week, we finally get to see President Obama's thesis statement.

For weeks, we've seen the rest of the paragraph begin to be filled in: the structure of a contrast between Republicans and Democrats, the hard-to-say-no-to infrastructure spending proposal, the even-harder-to-say-no-to tax incentives for businesses to hire, the surrogacy work by the Democratic Party, which is trying to portray the GOP as a bunch of tea-partying extremists. But we've lacked a thesis statement from the president himself.

At the White House, someone seems to have confused the message for the medium. With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, in American politics the medium and the message are no longer inextricably linked. The media is too fragmented for that. So, when President Obama spends time on the Food Network, on Ellen, on ESPN for March Madness and NASCAR, he may well (temporarily) up his Q ratings and his popularity through those targeted Neilsen demographics. That's necessarily because people don't religiously watch the Big 3 (or even Big 5) anymore.

People like Obama. But somehow, their feelings about the guy haven't translated into a like for his policies.

The way the White House has attempted to message on policy has been to message as if they had to target each demographic individually.

When you try to create a policy message in this way, you're bound to come up with kitschy ideas that backfire, like pre-naming a season that real Americans have to live through "Recovery Summer," as if we're all a bunch of alcoholics who have turned to the White House for sustenance and hope.  No. It's too late to be the national therapist on the economy.

Policy messaging, large framing opportunities, telling stories -- still relies on direct communication from a president to the people without a self-selected content or media filter.  Oval Office speeches, press conferences, policy proposals sold as policy proposals -- this is the stuff of getting from point A to point B. It's not complicated. It's not ornamentalized. It's not focused grouped. It's what Americans expect from their president -- that is... it's work. He's working. This is how a president works. He tells people what he is going to do and how he does it.

When it comes to fixing the economy, people want to know: What is he for?  They don't want to know: who is he? They know who he is.

Where is the thesis statement?

That's what this week is about.

The president is for a set of tax cuts for businesses and spending that would step up the pace of the economic recovery. In doing so, he's given Democrats something to run on. As much as the  party wants to localize races, they're still Democrats, and President Obama is still their leader.  Now, he's given them some bread. The Republicans want to freeze all spending and tax cuts. The Democrats want to cut these taxes and spend more. John Boehner, a relative unknown to the American people, took the bait this morning by offering an immediate counter-proposal. So now, Democrats have the beginning of what could credibly be called a message: here's what we're going to do. And here's what they're going to do. Do you trust them?

If the Democrats are destined to lose the House, then this presidential declarative is probably too late for political strategists. But -- and be honest here -- strategists are going to complain about anything the president does so long as his approval rating remains under 50%. But for whatever reason, or perhaps by design, President Obama's advisers now recognize that the November election IS a referendum on what the president is doing as much as it is a choice between two parties.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/09/obama-writes-his-thesis-statement/62630/