Monday at noon, President Obama sat with John Harwood and a town hall audience for an hour at the Newseum in Washington to discuss the economy live on CNBC. Talk about stretching it out. CNBC took a rolling pin to that hour’s worth of content and spread it out over multiple dayparts. The morning preview/speculation coverage was already well underway at 9:00AM on Squawk on the Street and the screen was adorned with obligatory countdown clock to boot.
Leading up to the event, regional focus group viewing panels were asked for their opinions. Pundits pundited. Correspondents corresponded. “What do traders and bankers want to hear?” “It’s live… what if some question comes out of left field, I mean, the market is open!?” Afterwards, they did it all over again, but this time at least with clips, something to go on. And for twice as long. C’est la media.
So, what about the actual town hall? Well, it was pretty candid. On both sides. Definitely from the questioners, arguably from the president. The audience was respectful, if not deferential and admiring, but visibly shaken and frustrated by their collective lot in life.
Obama was on-point, on-message, on his game. He effectively defended his stances and his record: the Stimulus, health care reform, likely letting the Bush tax cuts expire. He made the rational case for the choices he has made amid catastrophes he inherited:
“The notion that somehow me saying maybe you should be taxed more like your secretary when you are pulling home a billion dollars or $100 million a year, I don’t think is me being extremist or being anti-business.”
“I can’t give tax cuts to the top 2 percent of Americans… and lower the deficit at the same time. I don’t have the math.”
“Tax rates are lower than under Ronald Reagan… much lower than under Dwight Eisenhower.”
“From 2001 to the I time I took office, your average wages went down 5 percent. We took a record surplus under Bill Clinton and took it to record deficits,” making sure to reference the two unpaid-for sets of tax cuts and two wars.
“This sense of me beating up on Wall Street — I think most folks on Main Street feel like they got beat up upon… There’s a big chunk of the country that thinks I have been too soft on Wall Street.”
However, he had to confront the waning expectations of ardent supporters of his:
“I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for. I’ve been told that I voted for a man who was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class and I’m waiting sir, I’m waiting. I still don’t feel it yet.”
“I was really inspired by you and your campaign and the message you brought, and that inspiration is dying away… I really want to know, is the American dream dead for me?”
“I need you to help us understand how you can regain the political center, because, you’re losing the war of sound bites. You’re losing the media cycles.”
It’s said that this president likes policy, but hates politics. That’s noble, but naive. He is a politician, and has been for decades. And while he may not pay attention to the daily political box scores, millions of Americans do, and that perception snowballs into reality. So, when supporters are openly and vulnerably saying such things, he needs to give them something to grab hold of.
Indeed, it felt like he held back, and to his detriment. I wanted him to go a step further, as I felt many of the people there did.
Obama was honest, but measured in his optimism. What the country really wants to hear, needs to hear, ironically, is the audacity of hope. And every time he seems on the cusp of saying something sweepingly positive and inspiring, he just stops.
For instance, Monday, we only got, “My goal here is not to convince you that everything is where it needs to be, but what I am saying is that we are moving in the right direction.” Doesn’t exactly bring you to your feet. The next stanza should have been some variation of, “Look, let me tell you something. We have seen the worst, and you all know it’s been rougher than anyone expected, but the beginning of a new era of American economic vibrance is just on the brink of cresting. We are going to come back more prepared than ever, more secure than ever, and yes, more prosperous than ever… just you wait!”
“You gotta give ’em hope,” Harvey Milk would say. And hey, economics is in large part based on feeling, on attitude, on psychology, which effects behavior.
This notion of the grand pep talk tracks back to another one of my concerns with the Obama team’s messaging strategy. It’s the medium in addition to the message, to throw in some Marshall McLuhan for you theorists out there in Bloggingtonville. Obama’s most powerful rhetorical weapon, against a tepid economy, against Republicans, against Decepticons (don’t kid yourself, they’re here), is the Oval Office address. It simultaneously provides the widest individual reach, the most control, and the most official presentation.
So, it’s astonishing that two years into his presidency, he has chosen not to use that unique platform to speak out on the economy, the most important issue facing the country. It would be like having a Death Star and not using its superlaser. Don’t get me wrong, the communication options of today are diverse and sophisticated and multiple avenues need to be attended to. But, you don’t see most Fortune 100 companies giving up on all their primetime advertising solely for banner ads, billboards, and tweets. Because, while having a live town hall may be a big deal for CNBC, it’s not that big a deal for America.
James Carville hit the first President Bush over the head for his detachment, numbness, and inefficacy in addressing the economy effectively in 1992. 18 years later his message is eerily resonant to a smarter, younger, more engaged man of his own party. Let’s hope the outcome is different.