Friday Talking Points [138] -- "Candidate" Obama Returns

America (as, likely, everywhere else) always has a seamy underside, crawling with metaphoric maggots, to anything that is mostly seen as good by the majority of the populace. One of those maggots crawled out this week in the religious world, down in Florida. Its proper name is bigotry, or perhaps hatred. It is the direct descendent of Kristallnacht, and of the Ku Klux Klan. And, of course, all of that makes for good television, as far as the media is concerned.

Using what I would call "the Balloon Boy effect," a pastor with a very small flock managed to get his face pretty much in every media outlet which currently exists. There's a lesson to be drawn from all of this, and it is an ugly one which will likely happen repeatedly, until the media figures out how badly it is being "played" -- threatening to burn a Quran all but guarantees you worldwide media attention. Other hate-filled religious leaders (of which, sadly, America has more than just one) will likely figure this out fairly soon. In other words, even after tomorrow, this could become a much bigger problem.

Which is why I've been refusing to acknowledge the guy, or otherwise write about him. He doesn't deserve it, what he deserves is to be quickly forgotten.

On the political front, the big story this week was the reappearance of what has been called "Candidate Obama." But we're devoting a lot of today's article to this story, so we will just mention it in passing up front (in a nod to English teachers everywhere, this is known as "foreshadowing," or, for Journalism teachers, a "teaser").

Breaking news this morning was the ruling by a federal judge which could overturn the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy of barring gay people from openly serving in the military. While this is indeed a momentous occasion for gay rights folks, the case still has quite a ways to go before the courts will officially overturn the policy once and for all. Not to detract from the ruling itself, or the possible consequences -- which are huge. The status of Obama's efforts on overturning DADT are in a critical phase right now, and this ruling will likely give the boost that is needed to move forward quickly. The House, in passing the military appropriations bill (which funds the Pentagon each year), has already passed a repeal of DADT. The bill is now in the Senate's hands. Using the leverage of the court's opinion to give the effort a new sense of urgency can only help the process move along faster. The Senate is already aware that the Pentagon itself will be releasing a report on how to transition away from DADT in a few months' time. Meaning that everyone is getting on board the effort, making it easier for the Senate to act on it.

Politically, of course, it's a winner for Democrats, even if Republicans may not have figured this out yet. Unlike gay marriage, scrapping DADT has an enormous majority of the public's opinion behind it. This means that the losing side of the debate has switched from the anti-gay position to the pro-gay position in the last couple of decades. Republicans are going to be forced to walk a tightrope on the issue. Will they "vote against funding our troops in time of war" solely on the DADT issue? That's going to annoy some folks. Will they strongly denounce gay rights? This is usually a winning issue with their base, but it now has to be seen as a dangerous position to take when courting independent voters. The big question, as always, is: will Harry Reid push hard for this and get it done before the election? That's the great unknown, at this point.

On a personal note, last week (in this column) one couldn't help but wonder if perhaps someone in the White House may be reading this column (since I called for a presidential press conference right before they -- coincidentally, I'm sure -- announced today's press conference). This week, I decided to put this notion to a test. I'm sad to report that my leverage over the White House is, as I suspected, non-existent. Tuesday, I called on Rahm Emanuel to immediately decide to run for Chicago's mayor, and that we would all be strongly behind him in his efforts to do so, as he exits the White House. OK, it was snarky, but c'mon, it's Rahm Emanuel after all. Ahem. Yesterday, I rashly predicted that President Obama would announce the nomination of Elizabeth Warren to head the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau today. Well, that one didn't happen, either, although Obama did walk right up to doing so in his press conference, but then he walked right back away from it as well, leaving nothing but confusion in his wake. So, having gone zero-for-two this week, we can definitively say that any delusions of grandeur we might have had were completely unfounded.

Just to set the record straight. Heh.

Enough of this frivolity, though, let's move on to the awards part of the presentation.


Before we get to the main award here, we've got to at least tip our metaphoric hat to Tim Geithner, for giving a great interview on PBS' The News Hour earlier this week. The president has obviously made this "Economy Week," to roll out their arguments for Democrats to use in the upcoming election. But to be successful at this effort, Obama simply can't do it alone. He's got to have a chorus of Democratic voices behind him echoing the same storyline. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner did so during the week, explaining the administration's position on a range of economic issues. Now, Geithner certainly has his critics on the Left, but supporting the president publicly is a big part of any Cabinet member's job, and Geithner did a pretty good job of doing so. So we're awarding him an Honorable Mention this week for his interview. Geithner has also gotten a lot better at giving interviews since he first took the job, we should point out.

But the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week, hands down, was none other than President Barack Obama. To be honest, he didn't really have a lot of competition, since this is the final week of Congress' multi-week midsummer vacation, meaning most Democrats were enjoying themselves off on junkets or back in their home districts -- leaving a pretty clear field for the president to dominate the week.

And dominate he did. Monday, he gave a rousing pro-worker Labor Day speech, Wednesday he gave a rousing speech on the economy, and Friday he held the first press conference he's held in months. Finally, the White House seems to have woken up and realized that "overexposure" of a president is a myth propagated by those who oppose him. The "bully pulpit" is there to be used, in other words, not there to gather dust until Fox News decides it is OK for the president to speak to the public.

But it's not just the fact that the president is speaking to the public so often, it's also what he's been saying. Obama finally seems to have realized there's an election coming up, and has given up on the bipartisanship dream. And, in doing so, he has gotten back to talking about what Democrats believe in, and what Republicans are fighting for, and against. He's even calling out Republican congressional leaders by name. But the biggest thing is that he's now providing a narrative for the Democratic Party. He's telling the story of who Democrats are, what their values are, and what he's going to fight for as a result. I examined this shift in greater detail after his Wednesday speech, and we'll be examining it in the Talking Points section here as well, so we'll just leave it at that for now.

But seeing the old "Candidate Obama" out there was refreshing this week, we have to say. Two things about Obama keep getting forgotten by virtually everyone (us included, we should mention) -- that he's a great campaigner, and that he "closes well." You can think (as we do, on occasion) that one of Obama's biggest faults is not getting involved soon enough in the partisan fights, but when he does get involved, he finishes well. This is good news, because this time Obama seems eager for the fight, and his timing seems to be perfect. He used the last week before Congress returns to take a virtually empty stage (with everyone else still on vacation) to make his case to the American people before the legislative fight is truly joined.

We'll see whether he can keep the pressure up all the way to Election Day, and whether Harry Reid can manage to get anything done in the Senate, but we have to admit, it's been an impressive start, so far.

Which is why President Obama has won this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award. About the only thing he didn't do which would really have capped the week off was announce Elizabeth Warren's nomination, but maybe he's saving that for next week, to suck the oxygen out of the room right when Congress reconvenes. One can only hope.

[Congratulate President Barack Obama on the White House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


Even though obscure, there was really only one candidate for Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week, or perhaps more accurately, Most Boneheaded Democrat Of The Week. Sigh.

Marcus Stanley, senior aide to Senator Barbara Boxer, was arrested by the police this Tuesday when he tried to enter the Hart Senate Office Building. Now, normally, he'd be allowed into this building, since he has a high-ranking staffer's job. The problem was, Stanley forgot to leave his marijuana at home. Some news reports even quoted the cops saying they had seen him remove a bag of leafy substance from his pocket. If true, this means that Stanley didn't just bring his weed to work, but actually whipped it out in plain view of a cop. And we can assure you (without even bothering to check) that it wasn't "Bring Your Weed To Work Day" in the Senate.

At least Stanley had the good sense to immediately resign his position, that's about the only good news here.

The sticky (one might almost say "chronic") irony of the situation is that Senator Boxer has come out against Proposition 19 in her home state of California (as, to be fair, just about every other statewide Democratic officeholder and candidate for office), which would legalize recreational marijuana. This irony, properly stated, is that if a senior aide to a United States senator can (quite obviously) enjoy recreational marijuana and yet still do his job (well enough to earn a six-figure salary) as a productive and responsible member of society, then why can't everyone else? In other words, how can his boss be against Prop. 19, when she now has evidence that using recreational marijuana isn't the evil it is portrayed as?

Put that, Senator Boxer, in your pipe and smoke it... so to speak (feel free to insert your own "stoner joke" in the comments).

But we can't really fault Boxer for her stance, since (as mentioned) pretty much every other Democrat in California (except those in very safe districts) has come out against Prop. 19 as well. But, for complicating Boxer's own message, for embarrassing his boss, and for providing a distraction Democrats don't need at the moment, we hereby award Marcus Stanley the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.

[Since Marcus Stanley has recently left public office, no contact information is currently available for him. If you'd like to contact Senator Barbara Boxer to point out the inherent contradiction of having a trusted staffer who uses marijuana and her current political position on Proposition 19, you can contact her on her Senate contact page, to let her know what you think of the irony of it all. Or to send her a stoner joke... heh.]


Volume 138 (9/10/10)

It's going to be an all-Obama Talking Points this week, I should warn everyone up front. Obama has done such a good job framing the issues this week, that all Democrats have to do is write a few of his quotes down, and they'll be fully prepared to be interviewed this week. Democrats should (for once) strongly get behind the president and strongly support his view of things, because it's just about the last hope they've got left in this election. If they revert to their normal state of squabbling, this opportunity will be lost. If they present one voice and strong resolve, the entire political conversation could change for the better for the next few months.

It's really up to them, at this point. It was extremely tough to only pick seven talking points from Obama's performances this week, so I limited myself to the transcript of Wednesday's speech and of today's press conference to narrow things down. In no particular order, here are the best talking points Democrats could ask for, right before the congressional legislative battle begins anew. To use them, all that is needed is an introductory "well, as the president recently said..." or some such phrasing. Any Democrat being interviewed by the media would do well to jot a few of these down on three-by-five cards, is what I'm saying.


   Tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires

I've been beating this drum for a while now (as in Talking Point number one from two weeks ago). Get beyond the "couples making $250,000 a year or individuals making $200,000 a year" language, and cut right to the heart of the matter. President Obama used the term "tax cuts for millionaires" repeatedly in his press conference today. This is the correct way to "frame" an issue. Democrats need to use this phrase in every single sentence on the subject for the next two months. Say it with me: "tax cuts for millionaires" or maybe "tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires."

From Obama's lead-in paragraphs:

As I said in Cleveland on Wednesday, I ran for President because I believed the policies of the previous decade had left our economy weaker and our middle class struggling. They were policies that cut taxes, especially for millionaires and billionaires, cut regulations for corporations and for special interests, and left everyone else pretty much fending for themselves. They were policies that ultimately culminated in a financial crisis and a terrible recession that we're still digging out of today.

We came into office with a different view about how our economy should work. Instead of tax cuts for millionaires, we believe in cutting taxes for middle-class families and small business owners. We've done that.


   We can't afford to wait for partisan games

This is a good one, especially since it comes from a Republican quote. The basic message: we can't wait. Republicans are essentially telling the American people "vote us in, and we'll fix things once we take power in January." The response to this from the Democratic side should be unanimous: "We can't wait."

Again, from Obama's opening remarks at the presser:

But one thing we can do next week is end a month-long standoff on a small business jobs bill that's been held up in the Senate by a partisan minority. I realize there are plenty of issues in Washington where people of good faith simply disagree on principle. This should not and is not one of those issues.

This is a bill that does two main things: It gives small business owners tax cuts, and it helps them get loans. It will eliminate capital gains taxes for key investments in one million small businesses. It will provide incentives to invest and create jobs for four million small businesses. It will more than double the amount some small business owners can borrow to grow their companies. It's a bill that's paid for, a bill that won't add to the deficit. It has been written by Democrats and Republicans. It's a bill that's been praised by the Chamber of Commerce. And yet a minority of Republican senators have been using legislative tactics to prevent the bill from even getting to a vote.

Now, I was pleased to see that yesterday, Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio said he would refuse to support this blockade any longer. Senator Voinovich said, "This country is really hurting," and "We don't have time anymore to play games." I could not agree more.

I understand there's an election coming up. But the American people didn't send us here to think about our jobs. They sent us here to think about theirs. And there are small businesses right now who are putting off plans to hire more workers because this bill is stalled. That's not the kind of leadership this country deserves. And I hope we can now move forward to get small business owners the relief they need to start hiring and growing again.


   Eight consecutive months of private sector job growth

This talking point was rolled out in a big way by the White House this week, and if Democrats would only repeat it a few times, it would help put the job market in some perspective. It also removes the data from the temporary hiring that was necessary for the federal government to complete its decennial census, to concentrate solely on "private sector jobs."

Of course, this always needs to be prefaced with "we're not there yet, but we're heading in the right direction" sort of language, though, to not appear to be "out of touch" with the unemployment situation. And always couple with "we were losing 750,000 jobs per month when Obama took office" to put it in context.

As I just indicated, middle-class families had been struggling for a decade, before I came into office. Their wages and incomes had flat-lined. They were seeing the cost of everything from health care to sending their kids to college going up. Job growth was the weakest of any economic expansion between 2001 and 2008 since World War II. The pace was slower than it's been over the last year.

So these policies of cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans, of stripping away regulations that protect consumers, running up a record surplus to a record deficit -- those policies finally culminated in the worst financial crisis we've had since the Great Depression. And for 19 months, what we have done is steadily worked to avoid a depression, to take an economy that was contracting rapidly and making it grow again; a situation where we were losing 750,000 jobs a month, and now we've had eight consecutive months of private sector job growth; and made investments that are going to strengthen the economy over the long term.


   Holding middle class tax cuts hostage

Once again, an excellent job of framing from the White House. It also has the benefit of being true. One of the things that may get lost in the shuffle as Congress debates the Bush tax cut extensions is the fact that if they don't do anything (which Congress, of course, excels at), then all the tax cuts will expire. They've got to pass a bill in order to save the middle class tax cuts. Meaning the "hostage" language is entirely accurate, because that is exactly what Republicans are about to do -- hold middle class tax cuts hostage to hold out for tax cuts for millionaires. And it's easy to make the moral case against doing so.

Now, that seems like a common-sense thing to do. And what I've got is the Republicans holding middle-class tax relief hostage because they're insisting we've got to give tax relief to millionaires and billionaires to the tune of about $100,000 per millionaire, which would cost over the course of ten years, $700 billion, and that economists say is probably the worst way to stimulate the economy. That doesn't make sense, and that's an example of what this election is all about.


   Same old, same old

The president has been forcefully pointing out a basic fact which the media has largely ignored so far -- the Republicans simply have no new ideas (unless you count the fringes of the Tea Parties, where ideas such as repealing Constitutional Amendments and dismantling Social Security abound). Democrats should be loudly stating: "We've put what we want to do on the table. Republicans have nothing but the same old, same old ideas which got us into the mess in the first place."

Obama showed how to make this into a larger moral argument, during his speech Wednesday in Cleveland (where John Boehner had recently given a speech):

And so people are frustrated and they're angry and they're anxious about the future. I understand that. I also understand that in a political campaign, the easiest thing for the other side to do is to ride this fear and anger all the way to Election Day.

That's what's happening right now. A few weeks ago, the Republican leader of the House came here to Cleveland and offered his party's answer to our economic challenges. Now, it would be one thing if he had admitted his party's mistakes during the eight years that they were in power, if they had gone off for a while and meditated, and come back and offered a credible new approach to solving our country's problems.

But that's not what happened. There were no new policies from Mr. Boehner. There were no new ideas. There was just the same philosophy that we had already tried during the decade that they were in power -- the same philosophy that led to this mess in the first place: Cut more taxes for millionaires and cut more rules for corporations.

Instead of coming together like past generations did to build a better country for our children and grandchildren, their argument is that we should let insurance companies go back to denying care for folks who are sick, or let credit card companies go back to raising rates without any reason. Instead of setting our sights higher, they're asking us to settle for a status quo of stagnant growth and eroding competitiveness and a shrinking middle class.

Cleveland, that is not the America I know. That is not the America we believe in.

A lot has changed since I came here in those final days of the last election, but what hasn't is the choice facing this country. It's still fear versus hope; the past versus the future. It's still a choice between sliding backward and moving forward. That's what this election is about. That's the choice you will face in November.


   Point out the obstructionism

Republicans have been getting away with setting record levels of obstructionism in the Senate largely because Democrats seem to have decided that this is a normal state of affairs, and not even worth mentioning. This is wrong. The obstructionism can be a powerful political argument -- especially in cases where it is so obviously nothing more than rank partisanship for the sake of partisanship. If the Democrats howled even one-tenth as loud as Republicans would (were their positions reversed) about getting "up or down votes" or "majority rules" or "partisan obstructionism" then they'd put the issue a little more front and center.

Obama showed Democrats how to do this, when answering a question about Elizabeth Warren's possible nomination. He pivoted to the larger subject of obstructionism without missing a beat (he trailed off after the phrase "dog catcher," and I cut out a reporter's interruption at this point in the transcript):

I'm concerned about all Senate confirmations these days. I mean, if I nominate somebody for dog catcher... I wasn't trying to be funny. I am concerned about all Senate nominations these days. I've got people who have been waiting for six months to get confirmed who nobody has an official objection to and who were voted out of committee unanimously, and I can't get a vote on them.

We've got judges who are pending. We've got people who are waiting to help us on critical issues like homeland security. And it's very hard when you've got a determined minority in the Senate that insists on a 60-vote filibuster on every single person that we're trying to confirm, even if after we break the filibuster, it turns out that they get 90 votes. They're just playing games. And as I think Senator Voinovich said very well, it's time to stop playing games.


   OK, how would you shrink the deficit?

This is the big question that Republicans truly have no answer for. This needs to be pointed out, since the media certainly hasn't done this job. For instance, the best argument against making the high-income tax cuts permanent is the fact that it'll push up the deficit, because this points out the hypocrisy of the Republican positions on both (which are contradictory). As Obama put it:

It's because we can't afford the $700 billion price tag. And for those who claim that our approach would somehow be bad for growth and bad for small businesses, let me remind you that with those tax rates in place, under President Clinton, this country created 22 million jobs and raised incomes and had the largest surplus in our history

This cuts out several Republican arguments before the debate begins. But the real overarching question is still: how, exactly, would Republicans fix the deficit they say they all hate? What, exactly, would get cut? If Democrats can shift the debate to what Republicans are in favor of cutting, it's either going to make them look pretty extreme in the eyes of suburban independent voters, or it's going to enrage the Tea Party folks by not going far enough. This is a battle the Democrats really need be on offense for, because it is going to put Republicans in a very defensive position. But the argument has to be made: what, exactly, would you cut?

Now, it's right to be concerned about the long-term deficit. If we don't get a handle on it soon, it can endanger our future. And at a time when folks are tightening their belts at home, I understand why a lot of Americans feel it's time for government to show some discipline, too. But let's look at the facts. When these same Republicans -- including Mr. Boehner -- were in charge, the number of earmarks and pet projects went up, not down.

These same Republicans turned a record surplus into a record deficit. When I walked in, wrapped in a nice bow was a $1.3 trillion deficit sitting right there on my doorstep. A welcoming present.

Just this year, these same Republicans voted against a bipartisan fiscal commission that they themselves had proposed. Once I decided I was for it, they were against it. And when you ask them what programs they'd actually cut they don't have an answer.

That's not fiscal responsibility. That's not a serious plan to govern.


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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground