Obama and Values-Based Messaging
The one sure thing about Barack Obama's inaugural address is that it increased tensions within the progressive coalition about his taste for "bipartisanship" (or "post-partisanship," if you prefer). Despite passages in the speech that were a very direct repudiation of the Bush administration, and a few strikingly progressive flourishes (e.g., the shout-out to religious "unbelievers"), the overall tenor continued his long rhetorical preoccupation with embracing values usually considered conservative as well as liberal, and deriding the partisan fights in Washington (this time in the Pauline phrase "childish things").
As has almost always been the case with Obama, observers have reached very different conclusions when listening to him in the inaugural speech and in other recent utterances. Some conservatives profess themselves as pleased or even charmed by his invocation of "conservative" values like hard work, personal and mutual responsibility, sacrifice and discipline, even as they (typically) warn he may not really believe in them. Some progressives continue to be alarmed by his post-partisan talk, and even more (notably both Marie Coco and Michael Crowley in separate pieces today) suggest it's a habit that will soon expire in the partisan exigencies of Washington. A few have divined somewhat less conventional ideological leanings in Obama; both Alan Wolfe and E.J. Dionne have noted the communitarian vein that runs deep through Obama's rhetoric.
My own take is based on my ten-plus-years of facilitating a leadership training program for elected officials called "Values-Based Messaging" under the auspices of the Democratic Leadership Council. Unlike some of the other elements of the DLC's agenda over the years, this training was never controversial, and has been very popular with a wide array of state and local Democrats from across the ideological spectrum, often as a party unity exercise in state legislative caucuses. To make a long story short, its central insight is that progressives in politics and government can and should build the largest possible audience for our more partisan policy goals and individual programs by embracing broadly-shared values that we often take for granted, but don't articulate, making us vulnerable to the kinds of conservative stereotypes that have been so effective in the past.
This larger audience may begin to shrink once bold policy goals and detailed programs are advanced. But it definitely helps, and just as importantly, roots progressive programs in values and goals the public understands, while subtly undermining the invidious belief that Democrats represent government, rather than bending government to the popular will. It's a simple way to occupy the political high ground and expose the narrow values base of the Right.
Whatever you think of this or that speech, Barack Obama is clearly a master of values-based messaging. And the inaugural address did not simply embrace broadly shared values beyond those usually emphasized by progressives; he went out of his way to argue that values often placed in opposition to each other are both reconcilable and essential (e.g., liberty and security, and public-sector activism and "free" markets). This may sound dangerously like Third Wayism to many progressives, but if reflects the fact that big majorities of the American people do in fact embrace such "contradictory" values, and do not want to see them vanquished or ignored.
This is probably why the public gave very positive ratings to the inaugural address and the accompanying events, even as most pundits panned it. And more generally, it is why Obama's speechifying--so often criticized as "vague" or "abstract" by the punditocracy-- resonates well with the public. There's a time for ten-point platforms in political communications, but it's essential to open the door to listeners by convincing them you live in the same "vague" and "abstract" moral universe that they inhabit.
Obama's inaugural address, like all his speeches, did move into the territory of big policy goals as well as values, and on this front, he has some enormous advantages. Recent events have made reviving the economy an overriding policy goal for virtually all Americans, which is why Obama's "ideas" for a stimulus package are gaining such strong popular support even as the details remain hazy to most people. But the inevitable drop-off of public support for those details will likely be smaller than would otherwise be the case thanks to Obama's determination to set the table so carefully with communications about values and big goals.
Moreover, Obama's second-order policy goals--such as achieving universal health coverage and radically changing the energy system--are very popular with the public across party lines, and the fact that many, and probably a majority, of Republican politicians and conservative gabbers don't support those goals creates a tremendous partisan opportunity for Obama and Democrats moving forward. Indeed, the past Democratic tendency to talk about, say, health care, in terms of specific proposals like a Patient's Bill of Rights and a prescription drug benefit has long enabled Republicans to blur partisan differences and disguise their own reactionary radicalism on health care.
Even the big policy goal that Obama occasionally mentions to the consternation of many progressives--"entitlement reform"--has, at the abstract level--a lot of public support. And the common assumption that Obama is playing on conservative turf by mentioning the subject probably sells him short, and reflects the age-old Democratic habit of conceding whole areas of public policy to the opposition. If, say, he can make Social Security more progressive, while folding Medicare into a universal health system, he will have taken away a common conservtive talking point without conceding anything.
This is why I've argued that Obama's meta-political strategy, and the underpinning of his rhetoric about partisanship, represents "grassroots bipartisanship"--an effort to build public support for a progressive agenda beyond the current ranks of the Democratic rank-and-file, crafted as a thoroughgoing reform of Washington, not simply as a expulsion of the hated GOP. You can call it "pragmatism" or "centrism" or "post-partisanship" if you like, but it mainly represents a sensible approach to the preeminently appropriate task of tearing down the old partisan paradigm and rebuilding a new one that can command an enduring majority in support of a progressive agenda. It should at least be given a fighting chance.