Take heart in hope

Things always seem a little different when viewed from the middle of the country. I spent the night of President Obama’s maiden speech to Congress listening to 30 residents of his hometown. Chicago was just one night in a week of focus groups that had nothing to do with the president or his speech. But just getting away from the Washington echo chamber gives one a slightly different perspective on the political mood of the country.

All last week, pundits and politicians were fretting that Obama was being too negative in his pronouncements on the state of the economy. Obama’s fearsome message of a long and deep recession would make Americans depressed and disheartened and just make things worse.

Well, America wasn’t surprised by what they heard. In a New York Times/CBS poll reported the morning of the president’s speech, 91 percent of those polled said the economy was either fairly bad or very bad. In the same survey the president got high marks for his approach to fixing it. Fully 77 percent were optimistic about the next four years of the Obama administration.

So, as a nation, we know we are in trouble but we are confident the new kid can fix things. That suggests the president has been right on message through a turbulent first month in office when he successfully rammed a huge stimulus through the Congress. Maybe the fact that the president has spent more of his public career outside Washington than inside has given him a surer finger on the pulse of America. He didn’t spare us any bad news, and that seems to have given him a good measure of credibility.

On Tuesday night, Obama deftly mixed his trademark hope and vision into the mix. “We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before,” he proclaimed early in the speech. Others have called that passage “Reaganesque” or compared it to FDR or Kennedy or other presidents who called our nation to a visionary mission. One need look no further back than the campaign of 2008 to find the roots of such oratory.

It was pure Obama. The president has mastered the art of telling us how much trouble we are in, scolding those who got us there and, at the same time, painting a picture of a bright new future if only we will follow his vision. The overnight polls on the president’s speech suggest America is ready to do just that.

Obama did not shrink from telling us how we got into this mess. He called out George W. Bush and a Republican Congress that rushed to squander a budget surplus with tax breaks to higher-income Americans and politicians who deregulated financial services and other industries, making it easy to take unacceptable risks. But he also reminded us that we all must share some of that blame. We settled for short-term profits rather than demanding long-term stability. We opted for greed as being good for business and good for us personally as housing prices soared and mortgages were secured by overconfidence rather than sound financial statements. The “day of reckoning has arrived,” the president said, and most Americans are signing up to take their medicine and brace themselves for a long recovery.

The president saw “promise amid peril” and laid out an ambitious agenda that relies on innovation and hard work. While most politicians in his position would trim their sails, Obama is making his campaign promises part of the solution to the problem. Healthcare reform, green energy, investment in education and a rebuilt infrastructure are all part of his vision for a revitalized economy. His plans for the future would be seen as sweeping in normal times. The president has woven them into his solution for “extraordinary times.” His vision for us all is to take on “a tremendous burden,” calling it “a great privilege, one that has been entrusted to few generations of Americans.” He seems to be telling America that it is time to put away childish things, time to turn our backs on quick fixes and easy answers, time to “shape our world for good.” It is a grand American story: that of hardworking people of good will and good stock who transform whatever challenge is given them into a brighter future.

Only time will tell if the president really does have the right prescription for the economy, but it is clear he has the right message for the country at this crucial time. That is what I’ve been hearing in the heartland.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcsa.com