In times of crisis, foreign or domestic, people understandably feel powerless to protect themselves from events and forces beyond their control.
And when people know that they are caught up in multiple crises, foreign and domestic — two wars, collapsing economic institutions, unrelenting unemployment — they become desperate to wrap themselves in whatever can serve as a security blanket.
Understandably fearful, Americans want to feel a sense of security in all facets of their lives — national security, of course, especially ever since the terrorism of 9/11; job security; economic security for their families; physical security for themselves and their loved ones on the streets of their cities and suburbs; health care security for their families; and so on.
All of this was the sort of politics primer that Team Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership seemed to have mastered in the 2008 campaign. But with the thrill of victory and the sense of manifest destiny that inevitably comes with winning a presidency, history’s best and brightest have at times been known to forget the basics of message politics that brought them to power.
And so it was that Team Obama seemed to lose its communication mojo once it was trapped in the reality that every crisis it blamed on George W. Bush’s presidency was now its crisis — to fix or fail trying. Even politicos who had once masterfully tapped into the public psyche and ridden people’s fear and foreboding to power now seemed to forget just how deep and visceral that fear and foreboding really was. And how that fear could be skillfully preyed upon and manipulated into a new era of distrust of those in power.
So it was that they knew that in a near-depression economic recession, people were very frightened about losing their jobs — and that President Barack Obama was determined to enact health care reform. And yet they failed to seize upon the one way that these two fears can be woven into the fabric of a security blanket that could assure fearful Americans, rather than make them more frightened.
Obama’s brain trust could have framed its health care reform as a vital part of job security in a severe recession — while we cannot guarantee that nobody will ever lose a job, we can and must guarantee that nobody will lose their health care insurance even if they lose their job, and anybody who needs to switch to a new insurance program cannot be rejected because of a pre-existing condition. Guaranteed.
This week, Obama mounted a new campaign to make education a top priority — even as Republicans are campaigning on pledges to make across-the-board budget cuts, which will require new reductions in education funding. Yet, the president and his message strategists missed another opportunity.
While Team Obama was putting together its education arguments at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a smart solution was being suggested across town at an unlikely venue: a weekend gathering of young Democrats at the Democratic National Committee that was mainly about building enthusiasm among voter-turnout volunteers.
Two days later, Obama would publicly make the case that Republicans should not try to cut education budgets — “Not at a time when so many other nations are trying to outeducate us today so they can outcompete us tomorrow. It’s an economic imperative.”
But he would have been even more persuasive if he’d heard a question that a young woman in the Democratic Party gathering had put to a young campaign strategist who was talking about winning themes. She said recent news reports indicated that the United States had fallen out of the top 20 nations in science and math test scores, and jobs were increasingly going to those countries scoring at the top — even while Republicans want to cut education funding. She then asked why the Democrats aren’t calling education “a new national security priority.”
The young strategist, clearly surprised, had no answer, except to say, “That’s a very good question.”
It was. And it should become a very good presidential campaign theme.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.