Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Tale of Two Speeches

President Obama and John Boehner each had their chance to talk to the American people last night about the debt ceiling crisis. They each gave their interpretation of the problem and their account of what's happened so far. So how did they do? What do the two speeches say about their positions?

I think the President gave a pretty fair explanation of what the debt ceiling is and how we got to this position. He mentioned the surplus that President Clinton left and placed the deficit blame squarely where it belongs, but without dwelling on the past. After introducing the debt ceiling he talked about what the Republicans in the House voted to cut and the tax cuts they chose not to remove. What he didn't mention was that the whole proposal was contingent on Congress passing the Balanced Budget Amendment and he probably missed an opportunity there.

When you hear people say that Obama has a messaging problem I think this is exactly what they mean. The majority of what the Republicans passed just amounted to bad cuts- the Balanced Budget Amendment is where they got aboard the bus to crazy town. Maybe the President thought people would agree with the sentiment of the amendment's name and not bother to understand its contents, but this was his speech and he had the opportunity to explain things as he sees them. For probably a majority of Americans this would have been the first they had heard of this particular "balanced budget amendment". He could have been the one that introduced it to them- without even using its GOP branded name- and explained how this country would be shackled in times of crisis.

"And Republicans made all of this contingent on Congress approving a change to the Constitution that would take future budget decisions out of the hands of the people. It would hinder all government actions indiscriminately and in times of emergency it would be downright dangerous. If this amendment had been in place the United States couldn't have spent the money it needed to fight World War Two."

Instead of explaining the amendment on his terms and using it to make Republicans look unreasonable he let John Boehner introduce it on his own terms.

Other than that the speech was fine; he did a good job explaining the problem without sounding "professorial" (which cable news seems to think is a big deal) and he sounded reasonable. I liked his sly list of  Presidents that supported a balanced approach to the budget process- Reagan, George H.W Bush, Clinton... I do wonder if he should have explicitly mentioned his campaign pledge when hr talked about taxes not increasing on those making less than $250,000 a year. On the one hand it was a chance to remind people that their taxes aren't higher and about this idea of his they supported in 2008. However, he may have decided that talking about a campaign wasn't Presidential or that it would be too partisan.

After the Presidnet was done, John Boehner spoke with a much different agenda. He didn't care to explain anything and made it seem like it shouldn't even need explaining. He had a real "there's a new sheriff in town" attitude about him, which I'm sure his party liked.

That was the real difference between these two speeches. The President was speaking to the country; the Speaker was addressing those who agree with him. Despite a couple of good lines like "the bigger the government the smaller the people," Boehner lacked the finesse Republicans usually have. His party has made an art out of saying something a wide audience might find reasonable while still giving nods to the desires of their die-hard supporters.

Any chance he had of appealing to the American people was severely deflated when he began his attacks on the President. Obama is still very popular in this country in spite of his lackluster job approval (in fact, that's the only reason his numbers are as high as they are). Boehner tried painting the Presidnet as demanding and unreasonable which doesn't fit with his image. He arguably even lumped the President in with "some politicians" worried about reelection. I think a lot of people might have stopped listening at that point. It gave the impression that Boehner was "just another politician," even though his words begged the audience to believe the opposite.

I think this gets at the heart of it: one of these speakers knows they are going to have to lead a party that didn't get what it wanted. The other is the President of the United States.

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