Obama and the Sorkin strategy



President Obama's close encounter on Friday afternoon with the House Republicans - an extraordinary public event, now archived forever - has prompted many observers to compare it to the freewheeling British House of Commons, where the prime minister and the opposition party routinely go toe to toe, bloodying each other in turn. That analogy seems overdrawn.

The British political pugilists don't preface their sneering remarks by saying that it's "an honor" to be conversing with the prime minister (as at least one House Republican did when addressing Obama). And the British opposition mocks the prime minister while he speaks, grumbling and rumbling in their seats, in what can best be described as orchestrated scorn. By contrast, the House Republicans listened politely and quietly, moved only once to a rumble of disbelief when Obama insisted he was not an ideologue.

Still, by contemporary American political standards, it was a remarkably refreshing dialogue; for once, opposing camps were not hunkered in their respective bunkers, firing off their polarizing messages. If you're similarly hunkered, go ahead and decide for yourself whether Obama or the House Republicans "won" the faceoff. Or you can step back - as I am - and simply take a look at the president's communication strategy.

In part, he was trying to channel Aaron Sorkin.

Sorkin, of course, is the wonky, wordy scriptwriter best known for his TV show, The West Wing. I'll return to him momentarily.

What struck me most about Obama's performance is that while he was obviously trying to engage with the House Republicans, pointing out common ground while also dismissing some of their arguments as "boilerplate" and "talking points," he was really using the forum to talk over their heads to the broader audience - most notably, to the burgeoning number of independents in the electorate.

Independents are particularly upset about the incessant partisan strife that gridlocks Washington. Time and again over a span of 80 minutes, Obama returned to that theme as he stepped back from the process in order to critique it. It was all very meta. Some samples:

"I don't believe that the American people want us to focus on our job security. They want us to focus on their job security. I don't think they want more gridlock. I don't think they want more partisanship. I don't think they want more obstruction. They didn't send us to Washington to fight each other in some sort of political steel-cage match to see who comes out alive. That's not what they want. They sent us to Washington to work together, to get things done, and to solve the problems that they're grappling with every single day."

And this: "These are serious times, and what's required by all of us - Democrats and Republicans - is to do what's right for our country, even if it's not always what's best for our politics. I know it may be heresy to say this, but there are things more important than good poll numbers."

And this: "Bipartisanship - not for its own sake but to solve problems - that's what our constituents, the American people, need from us right now. All of us then have a choice to make. We have to choose whether we're going to be politicians first or partners for progress; whether we're going to put success at the polls ahead of the lasting success we can achieve together..."

And this: "I'm not suggesting that we're going to agree on everything, whether it's on health care or energy or what have you, but if the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don't have a lot of room to negotiate with me. I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. You've given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you've been telling your constituents is, this guy is doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America. And I would just say that we have to think about tone. It's not just on your side, by the way - it's on our side, as well. This is part of what's happened in our politics, where we demonize the other side so much that when it comes to actually getting things done, it becomes tough to do."

And this: "If we're going to frame these debates in ways that allow us to solve them, then we can't start off by figuring out, A, 'who's to blame,' B, 'how can we make the American people afraid of the other side.' And unfortunately, that's how our politics works right now. And that's how a lot of our discussion works. That's how we start off - every time somebody speaks in Congress, the first thing they do, they stand up and (recite) all the talking points. I see (GOP pollster) Frank Luntz up here, sitting in the front. He's already polled it, and he said, 'you know, the way you're really going to - I've done a focus group and the way we're going to really box in Obama on this one or make Pelosi look bad on that one' - I know, I like Frank, we've had conversations, Frank and I. But that's how we operate. It's all tactics, and it's not solving problems. And so the question is, at what point can we have a serious conversation about Medicare and its long-term liability, or a serious question about - a serious conversation about Social Security, or a serious conversation about budget and debt, in which we're not simply trying to position ourselves politically."

I was listening to all these appeals to the independent voter's sensibility when it dawned on me that a previous president had spoken in a similar fashion, declaring himself fed up with the ideological politics as usual. It took a few moments to recall his name - but there it was: Andrew Shepherd. This was in the 1995 film, The American President...starring Michael Douglas, and scripted by Aaron Sorkin.

Shepherd, weary of being ideologically assailed by an opposition senator named Bob Rumson, decided at the film's climax to talk straight to the American people about the polarized process:

"This is a country made up of people with hard jobs that they're terrified of losing. The roots of freedom are of little or no interest to them at the moment. We are a nation afraid to go out at night. We're a society that has assigned low priority to education and has looked the other way while our public schools have been decimated. We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a (focus) group of middle-caged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character...and you scream about patriotism...If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I'll show up. This is a time for serious men, Bob, and your 15 minutes are up. My name's Andrew Shepherd, and I am the president."

Cue upswell of music...Granted, that was a classic Hollywood ending, and Shepherd was feistier than Obama (although the real president did have an exquisite line about Republican opposition to the stimulus bill: "A lot of you guys have gone to appear at ribbon cuttings for the same projects that you voted against"). And life rarely imitates art anyway. But, all told, Obama made good use of the GOP forum to speak the independents' language - and to underscore the fact that when he has the microphone, he dominates. The strategy Friday was to win back those independents, to demonstrate that he is on their side. At the very least, he maximized his opportunity.

And here's a question for his most implacable critics: Did you happen to notice that he talked politics and policy with off-the-cuff eloquence for an hour of Q-and-A without the benefit of a teleprompter (or even notes)? If conservatives give up their silly teleprompter meme, that could at least be a start down the long road to common ground.