How to Preach to Altar Boys – The Lessons of Barack Obama’s NYT Op-Ed

In the same way that my childhood self longed for the advent of flying cars, it is my fondest hope that someday, in the far-flung future, someone will print a dangerously ironic t-shirt commemorating the fact that it was our most digitally-conscious president, he of the netroots zeitgeist and social network wizardry, who chose to communicate with the public through what was supposed to be a dying medium. For all the ink once spilled on President Barack Obama’s plan to implement his own version of fireside chats by way of YouTube addresses, yesterday, in an attempt to galvanize support for his health care plan, the president turned not to Twitter, but instead penned a much-read editorial in the New York Times. Certainly this seems reasonable enough, and if the written transcript of his victory speech is but one indication, his words come off nearly as forcefully in print as they do by way of his famed oratory. Yet as the president currently attempts to make his case by touring the (particularly unfriendly) Western states in a series of (largely antipathetic) town halls, the choice of venue for this latest supplication comes as something of a surprise, if only because Times readers are infinitely more likely than readers of, say, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to simply agree with Obama in the first place. There’s that old adage about preaching to the choir, but this particular moment goes well beyond that, if only because even the casual newspaper reader is likely to be more well-schooled in the nuances of the policy struggle than the brevity of an editorial piece would allow; this isn’t just a matter of appealing to the converted, but appealing to people who have as much a grasp of the arcane ritual surrounding the services as does the minister himself. That being the case, unless, in what would be a truly profound display of net savvy, the Obama team is simply waiting to see how long it takes for news aggregators to strip away the Times‘s byline entirely, and thereby gauge how long it takes for an original story to hit the cultural bloodstream, it’s hard to imagine that the point of this piece is truly to persuade, the implicit function of any editorial, no matter the venue. Breaking it apart piece by piece, the unanticipated surprises of this story give us a chance to examine what role an op-ed can possibly serve a sitting president. Can a presidential op-ed really be more than just a stump speech with cheaper newsprint?

In a word? Maybe. An exhaustive study of previous presidential op-ed pieces wouldn’t really leave one with much to work with. It’s almost impossible to imagine any president before the digital age bothering to disseminate points of policy by way of a medium with a finitely circumscribed circulation, and George W. Bush certainly wasn’t busy jockeying for page space with Frank Rich. The only real model for Obama’s current strategy is, well, Obama himself. Back during the campaign, Obama offered an op-ed to the Times detailing his strategy for the war in Iraq. At the time, the article was praised for offering a specific vision of specific policies at a time when the presumptive candidate had long been decried as weak in articulating any decisive policy, and yet it was John McCain, not Obama, whose essay was refused by the Times for not laying any new groundwork, for reacting rather than responding (an allegation which, by the way, is pretty much true; there are approximately three sentences in the course of twelve paragraphs where McCains uses “I”as the subject of a sentence¬† rather than “Senator Obama”).

At first blush, by comparison, Obama’s latest piece does seem to read like something of a stump speech. We see phrases like “I don’t have to explain.” There’s a parting reference to our children, although fortunately sans mention of “our children’s children.” The second paragraph mentions one of the “46 million Americans without health insurance” by name, thereby attempting to give shape to the general through familiarization with the specific, and yet, merely by drawing attention to the staggering size of that figure makes it seem as though Ms. Lori Hithcock’s story was chosen at random (and really, of all hepatitis sufferers to mention, you pick someone with the sexually-transmitted one?). As far as political rhetoric goes, this sort of thing is as predictable as verse-chorus-verse. Yet the real breakthrough here really is in enhanced specificity in the final paragraphs, in a line by line, point by point dissection of what the president’s health care agenda is aimed at accomplishing. As I’d said before, this sort of frankness shouldn’t be news to readers of the Times…except that it is. Obama’s opening shot describing how “media attention has been focused [only] on the loudest voices” seems to be a passing snipe at Fox News and the like, who’ve been giving airtime to people who yell at Arlen Specter and bring guns to public places as though they were in fact policy specialists, but the notion that the media’s priorities are slightly skewed could even be applied to the Times itself. Many of the featured articles on health care policy (here, here, here, or here, for starters) are focused not on what current legislative provisions are actually intended, but only which ones probably won’t make the cut. The media’s depiction of bill drafting is a hallmark exercise in negative capability. Even the splash page for the Times‘s Caucus blog plays up the same unresolved tensions. The fact that the currently “most e-mailed” Times op-ed piece is not the president’s own but – I am not making this up -“Op-Ed Contributor: Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think,” suggests that the public has largely grown weary of the discourse.

Given that no domestic policy is more pressing at present than health care mediation, this sort of policy fatigue obviously cannot stand. And that’s what Obama’s op-ed, with remarkable swiftness, manages to accomplish. By simply spelling out his priorities, free from the entangling interjections of several score of Congresspeople, Obama is able to provide his own benchmark for what the eventual legislation should or should not accomplish, his own narrow version of the Monroe Doctrine. Certainly there’s a risk to this approach – if the bill is deflated by the time it is passed, then it is Obama’s op-ed that will provide the template for its failure – but the upshot to presenting a unified policy front is that it actually might allow the administration to mitigate blame. In the same day that the op-ed ran, Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s own Health and Human Services Secretary, implied that the now thoroughly battered “public option” might need to be dropped from the final bill. But with all of his cards on the table, any late amendments to the eventual bill can’t be laid at Obama’s door. In this sense, Obama’s health care opinion piece is actually more radical than his discourse on Iraq. In deference to the relative success of the surge, much of Obama’s space in the earlier article is eaten up parsing the tweaks that can be made to existing foreign policy, and yet his parting statement, “It’s time to end this war,” remains pretty much unfulfilled. Taking on health care head-on, hep-C and all, allows Obama to take a stand and then to wash his hands of any potential fallout.

In the past several weeks, the Times has done its own part to bring the health care debate back to the issues at hand, printing a primer on the different arguments involved, yet in an effort to remain fair and balanced, the piece winds up more akin to McCain’s rejected “not this, but that” approach than to a genuine summary of what the relevant legislation actually looks like. Generally when we imagine public policy, we envision it with the same back-and-forth vacillation as political dialogue or academic debate. But for a sitting president, he who holds T.R.’s famed “bully pulpit,” the virtue of an op-ed piece lies in unequivocal articulation. It’s presidents, not candidates, who get to drive the Straight-Talk Express.


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