What the Candidates’ Kick-Off Speeches Really Tell Us

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Kathleen Hall Jamieson is the Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and our favorite expert to help us decode political rhetoric and communications on the campaign trail.

We asked Jamieson to look at much talked-about speeches made last week by President Obama and his presumed opponent Mitt Romney at the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and share what struck her about their rhetorical choices. Below are Jamieson’s thoughts.

On Hidden Agendas

President Barack Obama speaks at The Associated Press luncheon in Washington, Tuesday, April, 3, 2012. (AP /Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Obama and Governor Romney each accused the other of trying to obscure or conceal key actions that would be taken if elected.

For Governor Romney, the hidden agenda involved foreign policy; for President Obama, it was the Republican budget proposal (a.k.a. the Ryan budget). President Obama characterized the congressional Republican budget as “a Trojan horse” that “disguised” a “radical vision” of the country as “deficit reduction plans.” Governor Romney said that remarks President Obama made to Russian President Medvedev, captured on an open microphone, called the incumbent Democrat’s “candor into serious question” and added, “He does not want to share his real plans before the election, either with the public or with the press…. He is intent on hiding.”

Underlying this back and forth is a damaging character attack by each that implies a wily opponent bent on deception. Each attack is digested in the opposing candidate’s attack-ad-ready word. For Governor Romney, the indicting term is the one he used to describe the Ryan budget plan — “marvelous” — a word that according to Obama is one “you don’t often hear when it comes to describing a budget. (Laughter.) It’s a word you don’t often hear generally. (Laughter.)” For President Obama, the damning noun caught on the “hot mic” in his conversation with the Russian leader is “flexibility” — by which Romney says the Democrat means that “what the American public doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

Apart from revealing a line of character assault, these two passages are noteworthy for a second reason. If the public accepts the assumption that a candidate is hiding true intent, it may tolerate fear-based rhetoric about an imagined future. For a helpful check on the claims and counterclaims of those speeches see our FactCheck.org article titled “Fall Preview: Obama vs. Romney (and Ryan).”

What’s Left Unsaid

One way the candidates can push each other into revealing their true intentions is by making an assumption that forces the unspoken into the open. So for example, in his ASNE speech, President Obama says of the House Republican budget, “I want to actually go through what it would mean if these cuts were to be spread out evenly.” He then forecasts that Republicans will respond by saying “we’ll avoid some of these cuts” and implies that what licenses him to make the assertions about cuts in specific social programs is the fact that “they don’t specify exactly the cuts they would make.”

The Obama move elicited the expected response from Governor Romney — not a list of programs that would be cut but an assurance that “you wouldn’t cut on a proportional basis. There would be some programs you would… eliminate.”

Of course, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney is eager to reveal what programs each would be willing to cut to address the debt and deficit crisis we face. Nor were Senators McCain and Obama in their 2008 contest. Recall the repeated failed effort of general election debate moderators to elicit such detail.

On “Social Darwinism”

President Obama said in his speech that the Republican budget “is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly-veiled Social Darwinism.”

I think we get a sense of his intended meaning by reading the sentences that followed. Speaking of the Republican budget embraced by Romney, he said:

“It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who’s willing to work for it; a place where prosperity doesn’t trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class.”

I suspect that he is trying to say that the Ryan budget creates a world in which the vulnerable will have a much more difficult time prospering. Survival of the fittest. Every person for him or herself. The problem with the phrase “Social Darwinism” is that in historical context it can be heard to mean that when groups compete, the one that is innately or biologically superior is more likely to thrive, a notion used to rationalize inequality and justify eugenics. Since I don’t think President Obama intended those associations, he would be well advised to retire the phrase.

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/M3QLNMIZV6ICVIU5XEWQCLVEZA Nettie

     Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing
    dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the
    pure scientific mind.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Herb-Reeves/1544538230 Herb Reeves

    I’m confident that most people have no idea what “Social Darwinism” means, and that many on the far fringes of the right-wing automatically recoil at anything “Darwinesque.” The chief proponent of social darwinism in the late 19th century (and who coined the term “survival of the fittest”), Herbert Spencer, took Darwin’s concept of selective adaptation and perverted it, in effect, to survival of the ruthless. The poor, outcast and sick don’t deserve our collective mercy simply because . . . well. they’re poor, outcast and sick. Best be rid of them. Let those that’s got it get more.

    Obama nailed it. And it’s about time that Americans are challenged to actually think and learn something about the issue.

    Retire the phrase? Back off? That’s been Obama’s major shortcoming. Double down and get in their faces with it.

  • Anonymous

    Tactically, Herb Reeves explains President Obama precisely.
    K.H. Jamieson raises the salient issue: Does Obama mean what he says?
    So far economic policy under his administration has been equivocal; doing the minimum to maintain access to opportunity for the 99%, and also doing the minimum to curb the ruthless 1% (from whom he receives hefty support).
    So by his actions the President indicates as strong  a belief in the invisible hand of social Darwinism as Romney (formerly the moderate pro-business governor of Massachusetts). If Obama’s previous compromises are any indication he will provide almost as much Austerity pain  as Romney would in imposing the extraction demanded by the financial sector. Such is the nature of the ongoing shift of power to corporate authority and away from government. Obama seems poised to support the necessary social engineering to bring it about.

    Romney and his team can’t discuss what is truly fishy about Obama’s quips to Dmitry Medvedev. All they can do is hint at conspiracy, suggesting Obama is a foreign agent. But if anything probing could be said it would be that both men are spokespersons for an overlapping Oligarchy that engages in military conflict as warmongering and for the generation of fear, for profit and social control. If Martin Luther King still lived he would point out that the USA and Russia are the top manufacturers and sellers of arms on the planet, so cannot afford the doldrums of peace. If Romney were to provide a truly damaging critique of the “keep away” cruelty of the mike-sniped exchange between the two Presidents he would out himself as the cruder alternative to the pragmatic and corporately compatible Obama. If Jamieson were to seize this teaching moment she could show us how the Presidential contest in  2012 provides extremely scant choice for the 99%. But she too has an elite constituency, and she can’t do that job for the voters without being discarded. Like Obama, like a public school cafeteria manager, Jamieson  dishes out  the “pink slime” supply-side political economy provides. And like compliant schoolchildren we eat it  up.

  • Lindi

    I doubt that I shall see the day when Romney and his social darwinist henchman Paul Ryan propose a healthcare plan that includes the poor and uninsured. President Obama is not perfect but he is at least belongs to the human race.