Obama's Hidden Campaign: A Year of Fundraising Speeches

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Amidst all the months and months of Republican presidential candidates' bickering and squabbling, it's been easy to forget that, oh yeah, Barack Obama is going to have to jump into this fray eventually, with stump speeches and debating and all that electoral fun. However the reality, revealed by the transripts of dozens of speeches he's given at closed-door fundraisers few bother to read, is that he's been practicing for his campaign for nearly a year. Since Obama officially announced his bid for re-election last April, he's criss-crossed the country, stopping off at nearly every rich, powerful and glamorous Democratic enclave between D.C., Manhattan, Hollywood, and beyond. Most of the attention that's paid to these events goes to the numbers -- the Republicans are keeping count of the number of fundraisers, 100 as of March 1, while reporters spend pay most attention to the dollars, $244 million in 2011 alone.

But these events also produce words. If you listen closely enough to what's going on behind these closed doors, you can hear Obama's argument for why he deserves a second term (as well as his backers' money) taking shape. Perhaps because he gives so many speeches, perhaps because cable news cameras generally aren't admitted, perhaps because transcripts of the events are sent out late at night, perhaps because the White House Pool reporters have heard this speech more times than they'd care to count ("POTUS then cycled into his standard campaign speech," goes the pool report from one of Obama's events in Atlanta on Friday), these events do not get the coverage of the Republicans noisily tramping through the primary states' fairs and diners. Fundraisers, then, make the perfect venue for Obama (and his speechwriters) to test out material, in a friendly preaching-to-the-choir situations, to be sure (think New Haven's Shubert before carting off to Broadway), that will become familiar to the rest of us by late summer.

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Curious as to what we can expect as Obama the candidate becomes a more public and frequent part of the news, we spent the weekend reading through transcripts of Obama's fundraising speeches from June 2011 to now. Here's what we learned.

First, Some Apologies

In his speeches from last summer and fall — among them one for LGBT groups in New York City and a Hollywood event organized by Jeffery Katzenberg — Obama typically opens with something of a mea culpa. He recognizes that times have changed, that the hope and excitement of 2008 have waned. He often makes jokes about his graying hair ("My girls say it looks distinguished, Michelle says it just makes me look old") and the "faded" or "dog-eared" campaign posters (most likely referring to those ubiquitous Shepard Fairey creations), and frequently says that since 2008 he's been "dinged-up" or "dented" or has "bumps and bruises." He's attempting to defuse the actual, palpable disappointment with a kind of wistful self-deprecating humor, and, at least according to the frequent appearance of "(Laughter)" in the transcripts, it seems to work. Of course there are realer, more concrete problems that can't be laughed off, but he only glancingly acknowledges those. He admitted that the administration has "made some bad decisions" during a speech in Denver on October 25, but never went into specifics, during that speech or any other. He also frequently reminds the crowds of what he said on that uncharacteristically warm night in Grant Park in November of 2008: that change is difficult and that it takes time, that he is "not a perfect man, and will not be a perfect president." Then, in a little "vote for me!" messaging, he'll often stress that the kind of progress people are hoping for "takes time, takes more than one term, takes more than one president." See how he sneaked that "more than one term" in there, surrounded by more general, less self-interested statements? Not all that subtle, but still clever.

How Quickly You Forget

After all that humility, the speeches then move on to, with increasing forcefulness as the months pass, a rehash of the Obama administration's many accomplishments. Depending on the audience, Obama will lead with the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell or the passage of the Equal Pay for Equal Work bill or some other legislative success. Of course one of his big sellers is the Affordable Health Care Act, of which he says, despite its many compromises, he "could not be prouder." And obviously there's the pull-out from Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden, for which he usually uses the dramatic phrasing that bin Laden "will never walk this Earth again." There's a rhythm to these speeches, beginning with the jokey acknowledgment of the eventual draining of 2008's almost impossible hope and then launching into the laundry list of successes. As the months go on, a clear rhetorical style starts to emerge, one that uses repetition of the word "change" to reinforce the developing narrative that the change we were promised in 2008 has partly already happened but that more is forthcoming. ("So we’ve got about 60 percent done in three years ... so I’m pretty confident we can get the other 40 percent done in the next five years," he said to applause at Melanie Griffiths' house on October 24.) He lists his successes with accumulative rhythm: Change is health care reform, change is the repeal of DADT, change is reforming student loan programs, beat upon beat upon beat. This device first appeared around November (we first noticed it in his November 14 speech in Hawaii) and has been solidified and increased in frequency since. We should probably expect to hear some form of it during various public speeches in the future. Essentially the campaign is doubling down on the Hope & Change narrative from 2008, rather than trying to distance itself from the hopey changey hangover. (What would the alternative strategy have been, "Hey, at least we're not that guy"? John Kerry tried that in 2004. It did not work.) It's an effective method, though it's very light on specifics. He may have to be a little clearer about the future to satisfy some of his more fed-up constituents.

The Republicans Are Lost

Obama doesn't spend a lot of time disparaging his potential opponents in these speeches, at least not in great detail, but there is a clear, if still developing, message about the other side steadily emerging. The most exacting dig that we saw in any of the speeches came in his January 19 speech at the Apollo in Harlem (the instantly famous singing speech), during which he joked, "We have not seen a choice this stark in years. I mean, even in 2008, the Republican nominee wasn’t a climate change denier. He was in favor of immigration reform. He was opposed to torture. The contrast this year could not be sharper." So, yes, he's specifically making fun of Santorum, Gingrich, and company there, but in most of these speeches he attacks the general Republican ethos, one that's abandoned long-held principles in the blind pursuit of thwarting Obama at every turn. In particular on issues of bettering the nation, infrastructure and industry-wise, Obama takes the current crop of Republicans to task for ignoring their own party's history. Aside from frequently cracking that "Republicans suddenly don't believe in building things," on many occasions Obama shames the current GOP by invoking progressive Republicans of the past, like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower, who championed big government initiatives like the Transcontinental Railroad, a progressive income tax, and the interstate highway system, respectively. He also slyly reminds his audiences that FDR was helped by a Republican Congress to create the G.I. Bill, so shame on you John Boehner and everyone else. In these speeches, Obama is implying that all of the current governmental nihilism is owed to people like Mitch McConnell, who infamously said that the Republicans' current top priority is defeating Obama. That political strategy is not "on the level," in Obama's view. In these speeches he's working to frame the current GOP as nothing more than partisan jerks who "put party before country" (an oft-recurring phrase). It's a clear ploy to the perpetually dissatisfied middle/moderate/independent crowd, who may not like everything about Obama, but hey, at least he's trying to do something rather than attempting to stop everything. (He often cites, sometimes a bit inaccurately, the John F. Kennedy quote "the thing that surprised me the most [about Washington] was that things were as bad as we'd been saying they were.") Obama often describes the Republican's view of America as "cramped" (it's an odd word choice) instead of the "big" America that he envisions, one in which the guiding philosophy isn't "we're better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves," as he describes the right's current mindset.

This Isn't Class Warfare

The whole "fend for themselves" thing is partly a nod to the "spread the wealth around" outrage and the right's accusations that class warfare is guiding the left's tax policy. Obama repeatedly tackles that topic in his speeches, often making the quip that "it's not class warfare, it's math." He repeatedly makes reference to his own wealth ("blessed" is the preferred term) and insists that he sees it as his own duty to pay his fair share. There was a part of his speech on March 1, at an ABC Carpet and Home store, in which he talked class not in terms of warfare but in terms of "values"; he reframes government policies that give people help as "the idea we're all in this together ... and that's a value." If not exactly verbatim, it's an argument that's repeated in many of his other speeches and it sums up his rhetorical approach to the class warfare issue pretty well. He's refuting basically the entire Tea Party platform while also reminding us of the economic garbage dump he inherited from the Bush administration. (He makes a lot of references to "the past decade," which the right will surely take him to task for, as he's often accused of relying too heavily on Bush-bashing.) This ties into his message of patience, that the change is still coming, by stressing that we can't just regress because things have been bumpy. It's probably galvanizing for an Obama supporter to hear/read, but will it really mean anything to someone who worries we're on the wrong path? Basically saying "don't worry it will get better, and anyway it could be so much worse," might not inspire that much confidence.

Serious Business

Despite Obama's little jabs at both Republicans and his own somewhat tarnished image, the closer his speeches get to the present, the more they take on a serious tone. To stress the gravity of the situation, Obama uses phrases like "the world is counting on us" and emphasizes that the crisis of the middle class is "the defining issue of our time," as he did at Friday's fundraiser in Atlanta at Tyler Perry Studios. So, yes, some people may be increasingly disillusioned and are perhaps starting to "believe the vision we had is beyond our grasp," but it's of an importance beyond politics that the nation continue on course and not, through rolling back regulations on clean air and minimum wage, for example, compete in a "race to the bottom." With the increased usage of the "Change is..." mantra comes a mounting sense that Obama is sounding a drumbeat, rallying the troops for not just a war against the perceived failures of the past three years, but also a struggle for the future of the republic. Obviously that sentiment is always somewhere in dais-rattling presidential stumping, but in these recent hundred or so speeches it feels more make-it-or-break-it. That's likely more an effect of good speechwriting than any actual dire national reality, but if Obama continues on this speechifying path, and enough people listen, he ought to prove a powerful foil for the histrionics of the doomsaying Republicans.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.