The Vision Thing

At Politico, Glenn Thrush explores President Obama’s vision problem, or his alleged inability to articulate a unified message for the country. Taking a page from discontented liberals, Thrush compares Obama unfavorably with Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy:

Obama has groped for a larger message to match the iconic “hope and change” rallying cry of the campaign, and began his term with the promise of a “New Foundation” meant to echo the optimism of FDR and JFK. […]

“There is nothing wrong with our country. There is something wrong with our politics,” Obama said Thursday during a trip to Michigan. “This downgrade you’ve been reading about could have been entirely avoided if there had been willingness to compromise in Congress.

“There are some in Congress who would rather see their opponents lose than America win.” […]

That might make the case for reelecting Obama, but will it get Americans out of the country’s collective funk the way a message like FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” once did?

Thrush is moving the goalposts. After arguing for several paragraphs that Obama has yet to present a grand narrative to the public, Thrush then quotes from one of Obama’s speeches that lays out his narrative – excessive partisanship is killing America’s ability to get stuff done – but complains that it doesn’t do enough to inspire the public. Which is fair, if a little misleading. In retrospect, we all look to Roosevelt’s “fear itself” speech as a great example of presidential leadership, but there’s little evidence of its immediate effect on public opinion. Indeed, given the limits of presidential rhetoric, it’s likely that Roosevelt’s speech fell on deaf ears. If there was anything that motivated the public -- and enhanced Roosevelt’s standing with the nation -- it’s the rapid economic growth of FDR’s first term:

From 1933 to 1937, real gross domestic product grew at an average rate of 6.42 percent per year. Under those conditions, it’s no surprise that people felt motivated. If growth had slowed – or if FDR had entered office before the nadir of the depression -- our memory of his first-term, and his ability to “inspire”, would look very different.

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