Obama and Change

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OBAMA AND CHANGE….Joe Klein sat in on another of Frank Luntz’s focus groups of undecided voters yesterday and, among other things, came away with this:

“Change” as a theme is over. Too vague. And Obama’s rhetoric has begun to seriously cut against him. “No more oratory,” one woman said. “Give us details.”

I imagine Klein is going to get a lot of grief for this in the lefty blogosphere, since, after all, Obama has white papers up the gazoo for anyone who wants to know what he really stands for. But I’d be careful about shooting the messenger here. If Obama hasn’t closed the sale, then he hasn’t closed the sale, and railing about it won’t change the facts on the ground.

What’s more, I think there’s something to this. Sure, “time for a change” is an evergreen theme, adopted by out-of-power parties since the first leader of a neanderthal clan failed to kill enough mammoths to keep everyone back in camp happily sated. And it’ll be part of Obama’s message all the way until election day. But by itself it might not be enough to get him elected, and even if it is, it won’t be enough to allow him to govern.

I just finished writing a short essay on more-or-less this very topic, so I won’t anticipate myself too much here. But the nickel version is this: the goal of this election shouldn’t be just to win, it should be to talk a big chunk of the electorate into becoming friendlier toward liberal goals and ideas. Not just friendlier toward change, but friendlier toward specifically liberal change. That means a public that, at least at the margins, is more convinced that we need universal healthcare and that Obama can deliver it; that we need to withdraw from Iraq and reboot our foreign policy; and that some sacrifices are acceptable in the service of a serious energy policy. So far, though, Obama has simply been too cautious about standing up and really hammering home a simple, easily understood case for these and other specifically liberal goals.

FDR got away with this in 1932, running a mushy campaign and then turning around and delivering the New Deal a year later. But FDR was a genius who had the Great Depression around to scare the hell out of everyone. Obama just won’t have that, which means that working on public opinion is even more important now than it was in 1932. That woman in the focus group was practically begging to be not just inspired, but inspired in the service of a specific goal. Obama needs to listen to her.

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