Politics, policy, and the President’s speech

Criticism of the President’s speech last night ranged from the lack of specific policy asks to the aggressive tone he took in describing what BP would be forced to do.  But those elements are what made the speech a short term winner – and possibly the only viable course of action.

Though it breaks a personal moratorium on referencing Ronald Reagan, the purpose of this speech should have been similar to the 1986 speech after the Challenger disaster.  That speech sought to restore confidence in American ingenuity, which had just taken a very dazzling and public hit.

Obama’s speech had a similar goal – channel and focus people’s emotions.  In his case, he wanted to empathize with Gulf residents and all Americans who will feel the environmental brunt of a company’s mistake.  The policy ideas he put forward are window dressing for the bigger message – he feels your pain, and he’s going to inflict some of it on BP through a relief fund that the oil company will fund but not direct.   (Something that would have been a good idea for BP to set up in the first place.)

Could he come out of this swinging and missing?  Could BP challenge the seizure of their assets in court – and, conceivably, win?  Perhaps, but after waiting 57 days to make this statement, it’s the best message the President has.

Plus, if BP weasels out of the bill some how, the President will still have a chance to make them the bad guy.  Just because a James Bond villain jumps in an escape pod and eludes capture doesn’t make Bond’s effort any less heroic.  It just means that Obama will have to find new and creative ways to hold BP accountable – something like tax credits for owners of local BP gas stations  owners who want to change  their affiliation.

It may not be good policy, but it’s good politics.  As the old saying goes, when you see a mob coming with pitchforks and torches, either grab a torch and join the crowd or start running in another direction.

Polling for messages

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post about polling, check out the poll being conducted by Organizing for America, the de facto campaign wing of the White House.  With so many plates spinning at once, it’s a smart move by the DNC.   There’s plenty of energy on the right as 2010 kicks off – but not all of it is being ably mobilized by the Republican party.  A poll like this allows the Democrats to not only identify which issues will spur on their base, but also to communicate to activists individually instead of painting them all with the same brush.

He stayed away from controversial topics like football

Incredibly, this morning’s top story was President Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame.   The appearance stoked controversy over the issue of abortion, but of course despite some protests and counter-protests nothing was resolved.

The President and his speechwriting team, however, handled the issue well.  He wisely mentioned it in his speech, rather than trying to avoid or marginalize his opposition.  And, despite calling for civil debate, admitted that there are deep philosophical issues between the sides. The biggest acknowledgment of this was the President’s support of provisions which would allow doctors to refuse procedures they find morally objectionable – and something the more radical wings of the pro-abortion movement rail against.

It’s a smart move, politically.  Recent Gallup poll results that have shown that, despite a continuing tolerance for abortion rights, the American people are identifying more and more as pro-life.  In other words, the pro-life’s strategy of educating the public, organizing campuses, and talking about a “culture of life” over the past 15 years has paid dividends, and politicians can no longer use buzzwords like “abortion on demand” without appearing radical.

The issue will come up again as the drama surrounding President Obama’s first Supreme Court nomination unfolds, and the road map for a middle ground is set: Deflect debate over the legality of abortion by discussing social measures to reduce abortion.

There is, however, a flaw in this logic should be the next rhetorical conquest for the pro-life movement: that social measures which reduce abortions suggest that abortions are bad.  If they are considered bad, there must be a reason why – and that may be the next question President Obama has to answer in a “civilized debate.”


Two inches of snow plus a little ice canceled schools in Your Nation’s Capital and the surrounding areas over the past two days. I treated my walk to and from the Metro like an Obama Administration “process,” taking it slowly and methodically because the unshoveled snow on the sidewalks had turned to ice.

Given that this weather is a mere dusting in places like the upper Midwest (and my adopted homeland of New England) President Obama has called on the DC area to “apply some flinty Chicago toughness.”

You know something? He’s right on about this one.

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