Saturday, September 10, 2011

Tone of Voice

Reactions to President Obama's jobs speech Thursday night seem mostly favorable (here's a compendium from the indispensable Chipsticks). Republicans seem less hostile than usual, and the president's fair weather friends seem pleased that that he is calling for bold action. Even Maureen Dowd today paid the president  the back-handed compliment of saying he "deigned to get tough."

Speaking as one of the president's more constant supporters, I'm of course gratified to see the positive reaction, but also can't help feeling a bit annoyed that these critics have arrived somewhat late to the party. Because if you look at the substance of the president's jobs proposals, they really aren't all that different in character from what I would describe as previous bold proposals--whether we are talking about the amazing achievements of the first two years: the stimulus, the auto bailout, the Wall Street bank rescues, the health care reform act, or the financial reform act--or even the ambitious "grand bargain" the president sought in the debt ceiling negotiations this year.  All of these plans were big and bold, but all were fairly middle of the road politically, despite the right's absurd claims that the administration is pursuing a socialist agenda. The jobs plan is similar in being big and bold, but is also politically moderate. It doesn't propose nationalizing any industries, or any direct government employment programs in the manner of the WPA or the CCC. Instead, with a view to the politically possible, it offers more tax cuts and infrastructure spending of the most popular variety, namely construction of needed roads and bridges and schools. And it is coupled with promises of more deficit reduction down the line to pay for it all.

So why is the reaction more favorable this time? Perhaps the right has realized that their policy of unrelenting hostility displayed during the debt ceiling negotiation fiasco, didn't work too well politically for them. On the left, maybe it's just a question of tone of voice. The president's critics from the left seemed pleased with the firm manner the president displayed in his jobs speech. Instead of presenting his ideas in an open, conciliatory way, he told Congress that he had already thought of everything, and they'd damn well better just pass his bill right away.

Is it possible that what people are applauding as different is simply that the president's ideas were presented in such an assertive manner? I have to admit that it's a bit disappointing to me to see how much people seem to crave a strong father-figure president, rather than a president who attempts to bring different factions and views together and who defers to Congress's central place in our constitutional scheme. I don't think President Obama has ever acted weak, but he is sometimes perceived as weak because he is so willing to listen, to consider all points of view, and give a prominent role to other actors in the political process. I always thought these were desirable traits, but evidently they sometimes frustrate the president's supporters, and they lessen respect from his opponents.

All this might mean that the public is not quite ready for the bring-us-together, friendly, smiling, conciliatory, moderator type of president that Obama sometimes has promised. Instead we seem to prefer the tough, old-fashioned commander who tells us how it is going to be, and what we need to do. Even though our craving for authority seems a bit anti-democratic to me (weren't we the people who overthrew the king in a revolution a couple of hundred years ago?), maybe the president needs to take that tone in order to move a Congress that is currently controlled by the opposition. If that tone also cheers up the president's supporters, then I guess that's a win for the president all around.


  1. Yes, perfectly said, I agree with all of it! The stern tone in the jobs speech matches the Rights insistence on doing NOTHING to support this president, and doing everything to jeopardize his chances to win in 2012. The president MUST show his party he can and will stand up to those thugs and BEAT them back. "Taking it to the people" really had me fired up, I'll tell ya!! I'm gonna go listen to the speech again, alot of people say it sounds better after 2 or 3 times!