Looking back on the campaign slogan — "Change You Can Believe In" — it's pretty easy to imagine President Barack Obama sitting alone after hours in the Oval Office like a would-be Jerry Maguire, thinking:
"It was only a mission statement."
When he said "change," he was probably thinking about a more robust kind of "same."
But the voters are saying, "Show me the money." They took the tag line from 2008's page-turning national election literally.
That expectation gap was personified at Monday's live CNBC presidential forum by Velma Hart, an African-American and CFO of AmVets, who was first up to query the president. A self-described Obama supporter, Hart pointedly told him she was "exhausted" from having to constantly justify her vote for him, and told him that the lifestyle she and her husband had built — a middle-class home, kids in private schools — was getting harder to hang on to. She asked him, "Is this my new reality?"
Obama's answer should have been, "Yes," because until he stops telling people who feel bad that they should already be feeling better, they won't take any more of his medicine.
Instead, the president listed his administration's policy accomplishments — health-care reform, student-loan reform, banking reform. It's the kind of answer that's making him vulnerable to the new Republican ad campaign "Mourning in America" — a play on Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" — that says Obama has left America "fading, and weaker, and worse off":
Ouch. The president has some catching up to do on the PR front before he can convince Americans they're "stronger and better off." People don't want him to be angry or negative. But they do want real talk.
He needs to figure out how to level with people without being a pessimist. He needs a ready rejoinder to "Show me the money." What Obama needs is a bumper sticker:
"The Stimulus Worked"
Needs work, right? But it's better than "filling in the hole," "getting out of the ditch" or any of his other earth-moving metaphors.
Obama's biggest problem with selling the stimulus has been the word "stimulus." People don't feel stimulated. They feel recessed. It's not as if he can start going around saying, "Sh*t could be worse" or "We saved your ass," but surely there's a better way to summarize the fact that after a near collapse of worldwide finance, unemployment only rose two-and-a-half percent. Here's one: "You might still get rich later on."
"I'm Already Rich"
For some reason, Obama hesitates to come right out and remind people that he's rich. While it might be an indictment of our money-centric culture, people will follow the multimillionaire Obama a lot quicker than they'll follow the community organizer that he was. In the CNBC forum, he opened by saying, "My life is a testimony to the American dream." Then he got to tax cuts and said, "We can't give $700 billion away to our wealthiest people." Why not connect the dots and say, "I'm rich. But I'm willing to pay more taxes so my kids can grow up in a world with safe roads and a low incidence of swine flu."
"I'll Pay Cash"
When CNBC's John Harwood asked Obama, "Are you vilifying business?" Obama's answer started with, "Look, when I came into office … " and ended with — never mind — you don't need to know the rest because you've heard it before. Obama has to learn that the right answer to that question starts with a firm "Hell, no!"
Obama has to break himself of his "on the one hand, on the other hand"-speak. He has to drop the Congress-speak that refers to "tax cuts that weren't paid for" and "two wars that weren't paid for." Why? Because no one knows what that means. How about saying, "For every tax cut, you have to cut that same amount from the budget. Trillion-dollar wars don't pay for themselves."
Voters have either been unable or unwilling to recognize — and the president has failed to make clear — where he's leading them. The result is what Newsweek's Jonathan Alter describes as the "cognitive dissonance" between Obama's public image and what he's actually done.
It represents the gap between Americans' expectations, inflated in part by Obama's lofty campaign, and the reality of a recession that's been declared over on paper, but that everyone knows still persists.
On CBNC, Obama came closest to speaking plainly when he rejected the idea of letting people with too much mortgage sink or swim on their own, telling Harwood, "I guess my job as president is to think about those families that are losing their home, not as some abstract numbers — I mean these are real people."
Still not a bumper sticker, but a decent start.
For a guy who's got his name on bumper stickers all over the country, Obama doesn't seem to like them all that much. But there's a reason "axis of evil" and "never joined a coven" are easily remembered. To break through the noise and get through to people, words like "fulminating" — he actually said that — have to go. And a decent slogan — a better mission statement — should take their place.
How's this? "I'll show you the money — at least, whatever's left."
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.