The president has been talking some new talk. He should keep it up, and even step it up.
Obama rode in on his vaunted oratorical abilities, but the kind of ability we fell in love with him for is no longer of any use. The calls for unity, the echoes of Martin Luther King Jr., the rising above it all — it was great then, and maybe there will be a time for more of it in some years. But only after some new things have happened. And if they're going to, Obama needs to retool his oratorical chops for a new style. I highly suspect that he's up to it.
The present-day Republican establishment, with its know-nothing ideology and blithe absence of concern for most American human beings, has become tragically similar to the famously inert, heartless Senate of the Gilded Age, which for decades killed almost all progressive legislation even when it had been carefully hammered out in the House. The problem continued into the 1960s, before which the Senate was run by old-style Southern Democrat committee chairmen who for generations resisted, among other things, serious race-based legislation.
The president had no way of knowing that he would be up against as hollow-hearted and anti-intellectual a contingent as the Tea Partiers. But as of the debt-ceiling negotiations, it has become clear to all of us — Obama included — that we're not going to be rising above much of anything anytime soon.
It's time for the president to fight fire with fire, and he can accomplish much of it with a new way of talking. Obama needs to take a cue from the way even top-level politicians communicate in Parliament debates in the United Kingdom: a feisty, often almost heckling style of debate and address in which words and phraseology are wielded as weapons.
We saw hints in his jobs speech two weeks ago that the president is finally understanding this. "I know that some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live," he addressed to a particular stripe of Republican, with a quiet smirk.
Good line. Many of them must have felt a touch silly having that fact pinned overtly upon them. Many people going along to get along would be shocked to have someone follow them all day for a week with a mirror so that they could watch themselves acting as they do.
Students working in a classroom with a large mirror on the wall have been shown to perform better. This kind of rhetoric can help change people, change minds and thus foster change.
Mr. President, along these lines, please start calling some names. This week's callout to Speaker of the House John Boehner was a good start, when you proclaimed about his intransigence: "That's not smart. It's not right." The Republicans have had no compunction about lobbing dirt at you; at this point you must do some of the same to avoid seeming — and thus, in many ways, being — weak.
I, actually, would have phrased it more strongly: "That's neither intelligent nor even moral [pause], and a party founded on strategies like that is one to be feared, not embraced." The sky will not fall in if you get down in the dirt like this. Watch. They already don't like you; you have nothing to lose.
Obama's model should be, as many have noted, Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1936 campaign speech, in which the line about "I welcome their hatred" was just the highlight of a template for a president in the situation Obama is in now. Like FDR, Obama should not be afraid to lace his barnstorming addresses over the next couple of months and beyond with words like "deceit" and "indignation."
Obama channeled that speech on Sept. 8 when he addressed sequentially certain Republican objections to his policies, just as FDR addressed the new legislation for Social Security and unemployment insurance. But he should go further: Start labeling your enemies the way they label you. Especially since your labels will be more accurate anyway.
FDR decried those using the "old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob."
It sounds familiar because it is, and there is not a reason in the world that this direct form of defensive rhetoric was somehow more appropriate in 1936 than it would be in 2011. There is nothing quaint about standing up for what is right in direct terms.
Just as pertinently, here is the whole sentence that the line about hatred was couched in: "Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred."
A modern version of a line like that — "united against one candidate" — would be highly useful for President Obama. Cynical this may be, but imagine the racial resonance that kind of line would have. Already, the idea that racism is "part of" Republican opposition to Obama's policies galvanizes many of his supporters. For Obama to just cast himself as "one man against them" would channel that sentiment in a discreet but powerful way. Call it a dash of Kanye, but better.
Some would call an Obama who always spoke with this warrior tone "defensive." That's an old trick — you defend yourself, and your detractors decree that your doing so is somehow inappropriate. That is called letting the enemy set the terms of the debate.
Just as many liberals urge us to step past the right's having made "the l-word" a slur, Obama, called defensive, should have the mental cogency and the basic pride to say, "I sure am being defensive. I am defending my desire to serve this nation as a president should."
Oh, yeah — the Angry Black Man bit. Don't worry about people saying you're an Angry Black Man. For one thing, your supporters think Angry Black Men are prophets anyway. As for the other side, almost none of them will dare haul this out, just for fear of alienating the center with racially unsavory language of too obvious a nature.
And as for those who will — and they will — just own it. Again, the sky will not fall. After all, you are angry (I presume), and you're black, too. The country could use an Angry Black Man president just about now.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.