Some Modest Suggestions for the President

Ahead of tonight’s final Presidential Debate, and well-aware of my impudence, I’d like to offer some suggestions to President Obama regarding strategy.

Tell a Story and Stick To It

One consistent failing of Obama’s debate performances has been his inability to present a compelling narrative regarding the accomplishments of his presidency and his vision for the next four years. This is critical, because we are narrative creatures: we use stories to shape and structure our experience, and we need the structure a narrative provides to make sense of the data presented to us.

Romney has a clear story which he’s been peddling since at least the first debate. It goes like this:

“We can’t settle for four more years of this economy. The President is a likable guy, and he talks a good game, but his policies haven’t worked. The employment rate sucks, the deficit is still huge, and the middle class is getting crushed. We need a businessman like me who understands these things to clear up the mess and get America working again, and that’s what I’ll provide. I’ll lower taxes, get government off your back, and rely on the American people to fight their way back.”

Obama has been strong at tearing holes in Romney’s story and in putting a more positive spin on his record, but he hasn’t truly woven a counter-narrative which explains precisely why he wants a second term. This is a little odd because, on the stump, he frequently does articulate such a vision. The story Obama likes to tell goes something like this:

“We inherited a disastrous economic meltdown caused by eight years of Republican economic policy. We are slowly turning the ship around, and I need more time to finish the job. Unemployment is down, manufacturing is recovering, and we’re investing in energy security and green technology. Handing the tiller to the other guy would run us smack into the same iceberg which threatened to sink us the first time around – don’t risk it! They never tell you precisely how they’re going to navigate anyway.”

That’s an OK story, but it leaves out something crucial: the end, Obama’s future vision. Obama desperately needs to tell the American people where he wants to guide the ship of state in a simple and compelling way to finish his narrative off. He needs to offer a vision not just of a “fixed” economy but a better economy. He doesn’t want to come across as a guy who is content to pick up the pieces of a broken system. If his campaign slogan is “forward, not back”, then where is the forward, precisely? We all know where “back” is – they’ve been admirably clear on that – but where are we headed?

Obama also has to make every answer to every question part of the story. Sure, answer the questions. But answer them in a way which connects them always to the master-narrative. Which brings us to…

Pierce the Heart of Each Question

Obama often seems to think that questions posed are primarily opportunities to present a list of policies which will address a particular scientific issue. Bad idea. Obama needs instead to find the heart of a question, asking what value is at stake here, and what emotional need must I address in my response?

The question from Susan Katz in the second debate makes this point very clearly (thanks to NPR for the transcript):

 Governor Romney, I am an undecided voter because I’m disappointed with the lack of progress I’ve seen in the last four years. However, I do attribute much of America’s economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration. Since both you and President Bush are Republicans, I fear a return to the policies of those years should you win this election. What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?

Both candidates seem to have heard the question in the following way, with the bolded sections the ones they focused on answering:

Governor Romney, I am an undecided voter because I’m disappointed with the lack of progress I’ve seen in the last four years. However, I do attribute much of America’s economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration. Since both you and President Bush are Republicans, I fear a return to the policies of those years should you win this election. What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?

And they both answered with lists of policies which they thought differentiated Romney from Bush. Energy policy, trade policy, budgetary policy etc. And that’s a perfectly logos-oriented way to answer that question. But here’s what I hear when I listened to Susan ask the question:

Governor Romney, I am an undecided voter because I’m disappointed with the lack of progress I’ve seen in the last four years. However, I do attribute much of America’s economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration. Since both you and President Bush are Republicans, I fear a return to the policies of those years should you win this election. What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?

I don’t think the heart of this question was about policy. I think it was about fear, and disappointment, and character. I heard a question which, to each candidate, should have sounded something like this: “Governor Romney, who the hell are you, and how can I trust you to not be like that guy Bush with all his failings and missteps? How are you a different person to him?”; “President Obama, I’m disappointed in you. I once held you in high regard but now I’m afraid about my future.” In other words, the emotional core of this question, I think, was “Tell me who you are and, please, reassure me.”

Instead of launching into wonkish statistics – “31 consecutive months of job growth, 5.2 million new jobs created” – the President could have taken the opportunity to connect with disappointed and fearful voters. He could have said:

Susan, I hear you. I feel your disappointment. I know so many people were excited by my campaign the last time, and are struggling to find that excitement again in difficult times. And I know you’re afraid. People who are trying hard to find work, seeing their pocket books tighten, have every right to be afraid. The question we have to answer today is whether we will give in to that fear and start cutting programs left, right and center, like Governer Romney wants to do, or whether we stick together and see this through, carrying each other to a better time. And that’s why I did X and plan to do Y [insert policy statements and wonkish data here].

By getting to the heart of the questions – by translating them into the human language of hopes and fears – Obama will be able to reassure voters he understands and cares about them, and feels what they’re feeling. Then – and only then – will they be ready to hear and understand the policies he offers to help them out.

Paint Heaven, Paint Hell

Obama is at his strongest when he does he presents the election as a clear choice between competing sets of values: an “everyone for themselves” America vs. a “we’re all in this together” America. These are the “heaven” and “hell” of Obama’s grand-narrative, and he needs to use every opportunity to make them as vivid as possible. Romney makes painting ”hell” a breeze: his 47% comments practically scream “condescending out-of-touch aristocrat”, and Obama should hammer home that message every chance he gets. But Obama has struggled to paint “heaven” – what America looks like after a second Obama term.

He shouldn’t have to. He should be able to make the case that the economic recovery will continue, America’s place in the world will be re-solidified, and that America will be a freer and more tolerant nation. That there will be renewed investment in education and science, and a more sustainable energy mix which paves the way for a greener future. That, most importantly, America will have resoundingly rejected the notion that the poor do best when the rich are allowed to get ever richer, and will have reaffirmed that, yes, we’re all in this together.

If Obama can do these three things tonight – tell a story, speak to the heart of the questions, paint a scary picture of hell and a glorious one of heaven – then I think he will win this election. If he does not, he’s going to struggle.

About James Croft

James Croft is a Humanist activist and public speaker who has swiftly become one of the best-known new faces in Humanism today. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently studying for his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement – a national movement of Humanist congregations – he is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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