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Clinton’s Speech and Obama’s Messaging

It is rare to see such unanimity in the pundit-sphere.  But Bill Clinton managed to unite liberal and conservative commentators last night all of whom acknowledged the nation had just seen probably the single most effective politician in modern American history.

There wasn’t a topic Bubba didn’t address without wonky detail and that aw-shucks “I’m-just-a-country-boy” charm.  There wasn’t a Republican charge he didn’t rebut with specificity and a smile.  And just when you thought he was heading too far into the policy weeds, he’d pause for a second: “Now listen to this part- this is really important.”

The only common criticism heard afterward is that he may have gone on too long.  But this has always been a Clinton trademark that has confounded political analysts for years.  There’s an automatic assumption that the American public has the attention span of a gnat and no appetite for detail.  This is manifestly untrue.  People have always listened to Bill Clinton because he dresses up his wonky statistics and political arguments in masterful story-telling and infectious enthusiasm.

As more than one commentator mentioned in the wake of the Clinton speech, he described the Obama administration’s policies and achievements about a hundred times better than Obama himself ever has.

And the President knows this.  In a recent interview this year he admitted his biggest failure in his first term was his inability to communicate effectively to the American people on issues like health care.

In their riveting speeches this week, Obama has two great examples to go by- Clinton and his own wife, Michelle.   Some are even voicing concerns that the dynamic duo have set a bar impossible for the President to reach in his own acceptance speech.   That’s nonsense.  Barack Obama is one of the most gifted orators in American history.  The communication he needs to work on is not a 40-minute speech on special occasions.  His political challenge is the constant day-to-day  messaging.

I have been stunned sometimes to hear some of my friends and colleagues talk about health care.  They are convinced it’s a government takeover of the health care system.  Republican anti-Obamacare messaging has been sheer genius over the years.   They took all the arguments used against Canadian-style single-payer health insurance plans like Hillary Clinton proposed and failed to win on in the 1990’s and just copy and pasted the government “takeover” charges onto the Obama/Romney style of health care.

Republicans succeeded beyond their wildest dreams attaching socialist and government overreach insinuations to a health care plan that was actually first devised and proposed in the 1980’s by the conservative Heritage Foundation and later emulated in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney and that is entirely based on private-sector not government-delivered insurance.

But after the signing of the Affordable Care Act, the President, his work done, failed to understand he still needed to sell it to the nation at large.  So he stopped talking about how kids aged 19-26 can stay insured on their parent’s plan.  He stopped mentioning that insurance companies could no longer refuse to cover Americans with pre-existing conditions.  He never talked about the fact that annual physicals would now be free- a preventative approach to health care that heads off expensive medical problems down the road.  He stopped explaining why uninsured Americans would have to pay a penalty for not getting coverage- because if you didn’t incent them to get insurance, it wouldn’t be fair for the rest of us who have coverage to watch our health care expenses go up while the uninsured drive up costs by making emergency room visits for routine or minor ailments.

It is widely accepted by now that Obama’s failure to make these kinds of arguments after he had won passage of the health reform bill, was a key factor in the massive Democratic congressional election losses in 2010 that gave footing to the Tea Party movement and control of the House to Republicans.

Obama’s challenge is not in the delivery of soaring oratory.  I have little doubt he’ll probably give the speech of his life tonight.  The real challenge is maintaining his message and pounding away at his vision for the nation- even after he wins re-election- should the American people decide to keep him in the job.

Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton are not on the ballot this November.  Barack Obama is.  Now he has to realize constant messaging and framing of his vision and values and what he sees as his successes on behalf of the public, are the only way his arguments and his policies won’t be framed for him.

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