Poetry v. Prose

POETRY V. PROSE…. About a month ago, the White House made a deliberate rhetorical shift. As August vacations wrapped up and lawmakers returned from a month-long recess, President Obama went from making subtle allusions to the midterm elections to making explicit appeals for votes. Talk of trying to find common ground with Republicans was replaced with talk of trying to beat them.

With Congress adjourned and a month to go before Election Day, not only has the president’s rhetoric intensified, but the frequency with which he takes his case to voters has increased considerably. Just this week, Obama delivered two stem-winders, one at a massive rally in Madison; the other at a Gen44 event in D.C. What’s more, it’s not just Obama — Vice President Biden has fired up some good-sized crowds this week, too.

Reader D.C. emailed a question yesterday I’ve heard from quite a few folks lately, which I’m quoting with permission:

I attended a Joe Biden speech in Omaha, Nebraska yesterday. It was every bit as good as Obama’s Gen 44 speech. Where have these guys been?

Another regular, V.S., noted last week the president seems to have “found his voice,” but asked what took so long.

After two big events — one in Milwaukee, one in Cleveland — the first week in September, even E.J. Dionne Jr. noted, “Until Obama’s Labor Day speech in Milwaukee and his statement of principles Wednesday near Cleveland, it was not clear how much heart he had in the fight or whether he would ever offer a comprehensive argument for the advantage of his party’s approach…. Suddenly, there’s a point to this election. Obama is late to this game, but at least he’s finally playing it.”

I understand where all of this is coming from. These speeches and events aren’t just good for Democratic morale and generating some enthusiasm, they’re also an opportunity to hear a coherent vision, hear leaders take stock of their accomplishments, and to be reminded of why the country elected them in the first place. It’s really quite effective — what Obama voter doesn’t like seeing 20,000 people chant “Yes we can”?

But it’s worth remembering a Mario Cuomo adage from 1985: “We campaign in poetry, but when we’re elected we’re forced to govern in prose,” which he later truncated to, “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.”

As this relates to the Obama White House, “where have these guys been?” Well, they’ve been knee-deep in prose, doing the ugly, messy, often-thankless work of running the executive branch of government in the midst of multiple domestic and international crises. There’s little doubt that the president is one of the great American orators of our time, but he can’t invest his time, year round, in these “Moving America Forward” rallies. The president just doesn’t have time — he’s too busy, you know, moving America forward. Besides, the speeches would lose their punch if they were delivered all the time.

It’s ironic, in a way, to appreciate the stark differences between Candidate Obama and President Obama. The concern among many throughout the campaign process was that Obama was overly reliant on charisma, style, charm, and emotion. What would happen when the crowds went home and the guy had to actually run the joint? Well, now we know — what would happen is Affordable Care Act, the Recovery Act, Wall Street reform, student loan reform, Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, expanded stem-cell research, a nuclear arms deal with Russia, a new global nonproliferation initiative, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, etc. The irony being, the ’07 and ’08 concerns were arguably backwards — this White House seems far more adept at governing than the political/communications efforts that were supposed to be this team’s strength.

The point is that these guys whose speeches Dems have been enjoying the last few weeks have been there all along. They’re just now re-embracing the poetry that got them elected in the first place, not because they forgot about it, but because as far as they were concerned, campaign season hadn’t really started yet.