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Sep 9, 2012

The Simple Message Dems Are Missing


Barack Obama needs to refine his elevator speech game. Photo credit: Pete Souza.

Barack Obama needs a good elevator speech. So does every political activist. It’s the quick little speech you give a stranger you meet on an elevator about your group’s goal, why it matters, and why that stranger should support you. You don’t know which floor the stranger will get off on, so you have to convey your whole message clearly in just a few words.

If you get on an elevator at the first floor with Mitt Romney, you know what you’ll get: “Barack Obama is destroying our economy because he lets the government take your money and give it to other people, who probably don’t deserve it. We Republicans will build prosperity by letting you decide what to do with your hard-earned money.” Second floor, speech over, all out.

But suppose you get on the elevator at the first floor with the president. Which speech will you get? You might be on floor 20 or 30, still trying to figure it out.

Will it be the speech about tax fairness, income inequality, everyone playing by the same rules, making hard work pay off, building the middle class, guaranteeing everyone a middle class life, building the nation’s infrastructure, finishing the job we started, keeping hope alive, Romney’s job-killing at Bain Capital, Obama understanding your problems, social justice for women and minorities? And there are surely a few I’ve missed.

Theoretically, all these speeches can be knit together into a logical whole. The problem is that in this age of instant communication, few of the swing voters who will decide the election have the patience, or the interest, to think through the logical connections.

But there is one elevator speech the president often mentions that can quickly sum up how all the others fit together: “Our destines are bound together. A freedom which only asks what’s in it for me [which is Romney’s kind of freedom], a freedom without love or charity, is unworthy of our founding ideals. … We travel together. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up,” as Obama put it in his acceptance speech in Charlotte. 

In Ossawatamie, Kansas, last year he put it even more succinctly:  Today’s Republican “philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. I am here to say they are wrong. We’re greater together than we are on our own.”

That elevator speech is not about specific policies or what will happen in the next four years. It’s about two basic philosophies of human society that have been vying for dominance throughout the history of this country. Pick the one you believe in, and every other political and social view flows from it.

It’s not really a question of personal preference about how people should live, though. It’s a question of whether or not we’ll recognize how things really are. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it most memorably. Whether we like or not, we are in fact “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. This is the interrelated structure of all reality.”

Recognizing that truth should be “the fundamental rule of our national life,” Obama said at Ossawatamie: “In the long run, we shall go up or down together.” He was quoting another president who had spoken those words in the same place a century earlier -- a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt.  

Obama could just as well have quoted the Democratic President Roosevelt, who said in his first inaugural address: “The basic thought that guides these specific means of national recovery is … the insistence, as a first consideration, upon the interdependence of the various elements in all parts of the United States … We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other.”

It’s true that, for both Roosevelts, the theme of interdependence was only a small part of their rhetorical arsenal. TR’s elevator speech focused more on justice and personal morality. FDR’s focused on the social morality of keeping every person out of abject poverty. But they each followed the basic rule of politics that says a winning campaign is built on no more than two clear, simple, positive messages, repeated over and over.

Obama seems to want to have it all. He gives us both Roosevelts’ elevator speeches, along with a few themes of his own that differ from both TR and FDR, and he throws in a dash of MLK for good measure. The president may get re-elected, even though he’s defying that basic rule of politics. Then we’ll know who the next president is. But we won’t know exactly what message his victory sent.

However it doesn’t all depend on the president. The average American in the street does not have to parrot all of his many elevator speeches. As we talk about the election with everyone we meet, we are free to focus on whatever theme we want. We could choose to focus on the message of interdependence: “Our destines are bound together. … We’re greater together than we are on our own.”

If enough of us make that choice, the election would become a referendum not just on candidates or policies, but on the fundamental question of American political life: rugged individualism versus the common good, “you’re on your own” versus “we’re all in it together.”

Then, if Obama wins on Election Day, Dr. King’s vision of “a single garment of destiny” would be the clear winner too. The Republican’s “every man for himself” philosophy would go down in defeat. American political life -- indeed all of American life -- would turn a profound corner and might never be the same again.

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