Obama's Grand Rhetorical Strategy: It's All Connected

Christopher Beam at Slate makes the excellent observation that President Obama excels at selling his policy reforms as the solution to a complex web of issues extending far beyond the core policy. Health care reform, for example, is always about more than health care. It's about corporate competitiveness, a nimble job market that isn't tethered to precious employer benefits, more disposable income for families, freed up state funds for education and infrastructure, diminished deficits, diminished reliance on foreign owners of the deficit, and so on. Beam quips, "the only thing left for Obama to cite is some statistic showing most terrorist attacks are the result of high premiums."

Beam hits on most of the advantages of Obama's karmic approach to selling policy, but I wanted to highlight two distinct drawbacks. First, it forces him to promise too much from his reforms. Second, as anybody who's played Jenga knows, interconnectedness has its risks.

To be sure, promising too much from your policies is a prerogative of governing. But in Obama's case, where no stone should be left unturned by reform, I think it threatens to raise public expectations to a level where reality will prove to be a consistent disappointment. Take his cap-and-trade policies. Obama sees it creating five million jobs, reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and saving Americans $130 billion on energy bills.

Now wait. The point of cap-and-trade (or carbon taxing) is to price the negative externality of carbon pollution to discourage profligate production by firms and over-use by consumers. That means creating a little bit of hitherto unfelt pain to teach both sides the true cost of carbon. How do you raise the market price of carbon nearer to its environmental "cost" and save Americans money on their energy bills in the short term? It's not possible, really. Whether you auction the carbon allowances and kick back to consumers or don't auction the allowances and foot consumers with a larger bill, the price of energy has to rise. In the long term, perhaps, "everybody wins." In the short term, everybody pays.


There are other risks that follow inevitably from the everything-is-connected school of speaking. If every reform is balancing on another policy, what happens when that Jenga piece comes loose? Beam quotes Obama tying the GM bailout to health care reform. On the one hand, he's right to do so. GM pays $65 per hour to its employees when you factor in its bloated health care costs to current and retired workers, which contributed to its money woes. But it's ominous that today the New York Times released a poll finding that the public is falling behind the Obama administration on two key issues: GM and health care reform. While the president's overall approval rating is still a healthy 63 percent, views of the president's job with the auto industry and health care hover in the mid-to-low 40s, and this before what will be a sweltering summer of negotiations in DC.

Obama's ability to explain himself through narratives rather than sound bites is, on the whole, a distinct advantage, and Beam is right to focus his piece on the positive aspects of Obama's karmic worldview, in which we are all connected in the great circle of policy reform. But, as we head into a health care process where Obama clearly has more convincing to do, I wonder whether he'll continue to sample from a buffet of interconnected benefits of reform, or pick one theme and run with it.

Jenga! Flickr image from 416style.