In 2004, at the Democratic National Convention, Senator Barack Obama gave what Dana Perino, President Bush’s press secretary, recently called a “barn burner” of a speech. She was right, because, like many great speeches, it spoke to the mood of the country. Its message was what the country wanted and needed to hear. Sen. Obama said: “There are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers, who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”
When the President came into office in 2009, he had an enormous store of goodwill; and the country’s need to hear the 2004 message had not diminished; indeed it had increased. Our country’s desire for unity and good feeling was certainly a substantial factor in the reason Obama was elected. Yet the President has never followed that effective rhetoric in his 2004 speech or taken advantage of that goodwill. So, the country is more divided than ever.
Here are some things that the President could have said in the spirit of the 2004 which would have made his Presidency more effective and would be the basis today for an agreement with Republicans on our debt crisis.
When the President signed the executive order to close down Guantanamo Bay, he could have said:
“I am closing this facility because I believe deeply that its presence has hurt our war on terror and our American ideals. I recognize, however, that President Bush and the Congress, both Republican and Democrats, in a time when we had just been viciously attacked and we were blind as to what our enemies had in store, sincerely believed that Guantanamo was a necessary part of our war on terror.”
When pundits and the media started calling Tea Partiers “racist”, instead of remaining silent, the President could have said:
“I deplore anyone calling Americans who oppose my policies racist and I call on everyone to stop the name calling. Racism is too repellent to be thrown around so cavalierly. People who call themselves members of the Tea Party are part of our vibrant democratic tradition of dissent. While I thoroughly disagree with their ideas, I applaud their American spirit, and look forward to joining the debate with them and others on the direction our country should take.”
In speaking about who is to blame for the recession, instead of repeatedly talking aboutwhat he “inherited”, he could have said:
“I refuse to lay blame for our economic situation on anyone. We have too much work to do together to waste time on the past. And since we are all human, there is probably enough blame to go around for everyone, including me as a member of the U.S. Senate So, lets roll up our sleeves, and look to the future, which, since this is America, is a bright one if we work together to solve our common problems.”
When Osama Bin Laden was killed, instead of taking sole personal credit, the President could have said:
“This operation was the result of a decade of hard work by men and women in both administrations. The work was started by President Bush, and I commend him for the work his administration had done to help us reach this point. President Bush and his administration deserve as much credit as my administration for this achievement.”
Last January, after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the President gave an eloquent speech asking Americans to tone down their rhetoric. During the debate on raising the debt ceiling, however, the pundits used violent rhetoric against the Republicans and the Tea Party saying they “put a gun to [the] heads” of Congress and engaged in “extortion”, and called them “terrorists”. The President could have said:
“We just had a robust debate on the deficit spending and the debt ceiling. The debate was robust because we have different views as to how solve our fiscal problems. But that is the essence of democracy. I am glad we have had the debate because we have difficult problems to solve, and we need to have everyone involved in solving our problems. I celebrate our vibrant democracy where different voices can be heard and issues discussed in a serious way. Debate is good for us. And the result of the debate was an agreement that, while not perfect, is the result of hard work by this Administration and by the Congress. I commend our Congressional leaders for their hard work and their passion. I look forward to more debates with Congress, and to working together with them to solve problems.”
And when S & P downgraded our credit rating, the President could have said:
“This happened on my watch. I take full responsibility for it. As President Truman’s famous sign said, “The Buck Stops Here”. Our policies of the last 2 ½ years have not yet been successful in keeping the country on a sound fiscal path. And because I am the person responsible for the situation we are in, I pledge to work together with Republicans and Democrats to fix this problem. While I still disagree with the Republican’s approach, there is much that we can agree on. And I applaud the Tea Party for being the first to sound the alarm about our debt. I still disagree with their solutions, but they did bring the debt issue to the country’s attention. I call the Congress to come back to Washington from their vacation a week early, and I pledge, instead of taking my planned vacation, to work on concrete proposals for the Congress to consider when it comes back.”
If the President had said these things—taken personal responsibility, giving credit where due to opponents, talking to his own side rather than just his opponents about their rhetoric, and acknowledging the good faith of all political points of view, we would be able to focus on our problems and solve them despite our differences. Instead, the President’s silence at his allies’ name calling, his blaming President Bush and not taking responsibility, and his scolding opponents while calling them to compromise have made this country more divided than ever. The President’s lost opportunity to unite the country is truly a sad state of affairs, given the great promise of the President’s 2004 speech.