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Obama Sings “I Me Mine” in a New Key

November 4, 2010

So were the midterm elections a referendum on Obama—or weren’t they? The answer seems to depend on which way you pulled the lever in the voting booth. When Obama gave a press conference about his reaction to the elections on Wednesday afternoon, this question hung over him like—well, not quite like the Sword of Damocles, but everyone was thinking it in nearly visible thought bubbles.

After Obama’s brief and rather expected remarks on Democrats and Republicans working together, he took questions. But the most interesting question that he took wasn’t about if he would change his stance on an issue or sit down and have a Slurpee with Republicans. The most interesting question came from Reuters’ Matt Spetalnick. Spetalnick did ask a referendum-oriented question, but he followed it up with a personal one.

How do you respond to those who say the election outcome, at least in part, was voters saying that they see you as out of touch with their personal economic pain?  And are you willing to make any changes in your leadership style?

Admitting that the voters see you as out of touch is one thing, but making changes in his own style? As Maureen Dowd wrote recently, Obama has the style of “the sort of brainy, cultivated Democrat who would be at home in a ‘West Wing’ episode.” If the main guy changes his style, doesn’t the series end—in this case, before the 2012 election cycle starts?

In answering, Obama tried to join the clubs of two groups: the American people and the great presidential communicators. This kind of identifying move is common in politics because it’s how coalitions of the willing get built. It’s the situation of Person A identifying his interests with Person B’s interests, without actually becoming Person B, that rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke writes about in A Rhetoric of Motives:

In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another.

So, Obama can identify himself with the American people as well as with “a couple of great communicators.” But unlike black and white, have and have-not, this isn’t a duality where he can locate himself smack dab in the middle. To identify himself with the American people, Obama says that he’s traveling around the country and listening to the American people and he’s reading their letters every night. It’s not a complete identification, but it is an honest admission of Hey, this is as close as I can get considering that I’m the recipient of these letters.

When Obama moves to identify himself with former presidents Reagan and Clinton, it’s to gain a sort of rhetorical halo effect from both Democrats (Bill Clinton, a two-term Democratic President!) and Republicans (Ronald Reagan, a two-term Republican President!). Obama says:

[Reagan and Clinton] were standing at this podium two years into their presidency getting very similar questions because the economy wasn’t working the way it needed to be and there were a whole range of factors that made people concerned that maybe the party in power wasn’t listening to them.

This identification does double duty in envisioning an eight-year tenure in the White House and in refuting the argument that there’s something about Obama himself that has caused the recession, the Republican takeover of the house, and other setbacks.

Yet he’s still Obama. How does he plan to fit in after this particular shift of power in November 2010?

“I’m just going to be looking forward to playing my part in helping that journey along.”

In other words, I’m just happy to be here, guys! I really appreciate you letting me keep the Senate! Kthxbai.

But underneath the thanks for not stealing his lunch money, if Obama wants to join the club of the great communicators—and have the same tenure—he’ll need to identify with these communicators’ party representatives in Congress, too.

If you want to know more:

  • You can read the full transcript of Obama’s remarks and the Q&A session here.
  • The web site for the Kenneth Burke Society and their journal is here.
  • For an interpretation of the midterm elections as a referendum on Obama, you can read Maureen Dowd’s pre-elections column “Can the Dude Abide?”
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