The Great Persuader

| Wed Nov. 5, 2008 3:37 PM EST

THE GREAT PERSUADER....Will Barack Obama be a great president? He's got a big election victory behind him, solid congressional majorities in both houses, an electoral coalition eager to support him, and a country seemingly ready for serious change. But what kind of change? Technically, his platform is as progressive as we've seen from a Democrat in a generation. But did he really sell it to the voters? Did he even make the effort? The public face of his economic policy, after all, was almost entirely based on tax cuts, a distinctly conservative notion. His energy plan was largely based on the promise of "green jobs." He mostly avoided talking about social issues. He got people's votes, but did they really know what they were voting for?

I'm not sure. A couple of months ago I wrote a piece for Mother Jones about this, and after Obama's speech at Invesco Field I almost changed it a bit before publication. But in the end I didn't, and I think that turned out to be right. Because it's still not clear to me that Obama even tried to sell the public on specifically progressive change:

Majorities may come and go, but FDR built a liberal legacy that outlasted him because, by the time he left office, the public believed in the New Deal and everything that went with it.

Now fast-forward 70 years and ask yourself, What is it going to take to pass serious climate change legislation? A liberal majority in Congress? Check. Interest groups willing to rally? Check. But to paraphrase an old military saying, the opposition gets a vote too. And the opposition's message to a public already tired of high gasoline prices is going to be simple: Liberals want to raise energy prices. Your energy prices.

And make no mistake. Barack Obama's cap-and-trade plan to reduce carbon emissions may be technically one of the best we've ever seen, but it will raise energy prices. That's the whole point. So once the public understands that there's more to Obama's plan than green-collar jobs and serried ranks of windmills on the Great Plains, they're going to have second thoughts. And those congressional majorities, who face election in another couple of years, are going to have second thoughts too.

The right way to address this won't be found in any of Obama's white papers. There's a story there, if you dig deep enough, but it's long and complicated and relies on things like increased efficiency, consumer rebates, and R&D funding that pays off in another decade or so. In the short term someone is going to have to tell the public that, yes, there's some sacrifice required here, but it's worth it. Someone needs to come up with a garden-hose analogy to convince a financially stressed public that doing something for the common good is worth a small price.

That someone, of course, is Barack Obama, but it's not clear yet if he gets this. His speeches soar, but they rarely seem designed to move the nation in a specific direction. Is he pushing the public to support cap and trade even though it might cost them a few dollars? Or merely to vote for "change"? It's sometimes hard to tell.

I'm not arguing for hair shirt politics. Presidential candidates win office by promising to solve all the problems of the world, not by hectoring the electorate. And as I mentioned in the article, FDR ran a notably mushy campaign in 1932 and look how he turned out.

But even if that was a good excuse for holding back during the campaign season, now's the time to start using the bully pulpit. Obama has a notable streak of temperamental caution that serves him well, but it could also betray him. Maybe he could have turned the tide against Proposition 8 in California if he'd been willing to take a risk on its behalf. Maybe he can overcome conservative opposition to a progressive energy plan if he's willing to take some risks selling it to the public. But if he doesn't, all the congressional majorities in the world won't help him in the long run. I sure hope he understands this.

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