Monday, September 7, 2009

The Big Picture: Obama on Labor Day - Fired Up and Ready to Go!

Seems like someone engaged in some honest, penetrating soul-searching on his vacation!

President Obama returned to action today delivering a Labor Day speech the AFL-CIO picnic in Cincinnatti, and it is required viewing for anyone who's been feeling demoralized, who's lost the euphoria - in fact Obama addresses that directly. I highly recommend watching it in its entirety (just click on the title of this post) - by the end you'll be chomping at the bit to call your congressman, organize rallies, and tell your friends and neighbors to do the same. His speech today was the very definition of staunch - making no apologies for government action to prevent a second Great Depression and keep people employed, giving a long, passionate, forceful endorsement of the historical and current contribution of organized labor, how it is indispensable, how he is a labor President who stands on the side of working people and fights for them. It was the opposite of paying lip service with vague generalities - he explained that basic elements of our life that we take for granted - the 8 hour day, the 40 hour week, the right to organize and collective bargaining, the minimum wage, health insurance - all of them were fought for, hard, by labor. And he said in no uncertain terms that he stood for the Employee Free Choice Act, because "a stronger labor movements means a stronger America." No apologies, no qualifications. He showed whose side he's on.

Throughout the speech he spoke in the sort of folksy, charismatic-preacher, emotional-connection voice which I love, filled with humor, warmth, but also passion, fire, and grit. It's the side of him that came out when he was rolling on the campaign trail, and I think it is his best mode of communicating, makes him almost impossible to oppose or dislike, comforts those in the middle while rallying his base. In recent months, he has been sorely lacking this approach - the combination of staunch, unapologetic, making-it-real rhetoric delivered with passion, humor, and the human touch. I bet Michelle and his old friends encouraged him to quit worrying about appearing "Presidential" at all times and just go out there, speak from the heart, connect with people in the way that has made him enormously popular and successful at every stage of his life. And maybe he watched some old tapes of Bill Clinton about to connect emotionally with the audience, reminding him that success in politics depends not on nuanced statements but on hitting people where they live, and persuading them that you're on their side so they'll stand with you and pull for you. He demonstrated that today, in spades.

Obama matched this more-effective style of delivery with a more-effective message on health care, boiled down to the essentials, and instead of resorting to fear he made his message uplifting, conveying his vision of all the good that will come from health care reform. He said, "Imagine health insurance that works for the American people as well as it works for health insurers, where you aren't discriminated against because of a pre-existing condition, where your coverage will be there when you need it, where you can't go bankrupt because you get sick, where seniors have all their prescription drugs covered where you have choice on an exchange, with a public option." This all got rousing cheers. Obama summed it up, in a formulation that, finally, was necessarily concise and hard-hitting: "This is what it's all about: security and stability for those who have health insurance, and help for those who don't. Coverage people need at a price they can afford, while finally bringing costs under control." There you go!

An excellent foundation for a retooled push for health care reform, with a key moment in his Wednesday evening address to Congress. Please, Obama, bring that passionate folksy emotionally-connecting style to the halls of Congress! But, while this solid foundation is necessary for success, it's not sufficient. He needs to MAKE IT REAL. Tell personal stories. In fact, bring out real people to tell their stories for a couple minutes at a time, how the current system is failing them, and how health care reform will mean major improvements for them. Put those people up on the dais with you, literally in the face of Congress. Nothing connects like a sympathetic face and tearjerking/heartwarming story. And nothing will spur productive media coverage like those faces, those stories, and the drama of them standing up there in front of Representatives and Senators, pleading, "Don't let me down!" 

I was at a sunset vigil for health care reform in Central Park last week with my dad. As we arrived we weren't expecting much, maybe a small gathering with some activists yelling into a microphone, while we applauded but wondered, "what will this do?" But it actually proved to be far more effective than we imagined, all because it connected emotionally. We all lit candles and held them, both to mourn the late great Senator Kennedy, and to mourn the 20,000 - 20,000!! - people who die EVERY YEAR because they don't have access to a doctor. We listened to a Kennedy speech, in which he spoke of health care reform in stark personal terms. He told the story of how his son was in the hospital being treated for cancer. His son would get all the medical care he needed because he was covered by the Senate's health insurance. But, Senator Kennedy explained, the other families in the hospital knew that their children only had four months, or two months, or one month in which to get better before their coverage ran out and the costs would bankrupt them. The anguish on their faces - he could never forget it. That is outrageous and obscene. It must be changed. 

So, Mr. President, make it real on Wednesday night. Persuade the nation, with the power of emotion.

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