"yes We Can" Vs. "no We Can't"

by Jonathan Cohn | May 6, 2008

Media analysis of Barack Obama's speech tonight will probably focus on what it means for the fight over the Democratic nomination.

But maybe because the nomination no longer seems in doubt--like a lot of people, I think it's effectively over--I was more struck by what the speech said about Obama's prospects in the fall. And I think it boded pretty well for him.

For the last few weeks, it's been all too easy to imagine how Obama might falter against John McCain in the general election. Polls consistently showed Obama faring worse against McCain than Hillary Clinton would and, in many cases, losing to McCain outright.

True, these sorts of hypothetical matchups, conducted this far out from the actual election, are notoriously unreliable. But combined with Obama's demonstrated difficulty with white, working class voters--a key swing group--those numbers suggested real danger.

And, just to be clear, the danger is still real. At least based on the early exit poll results I've seen, it looks like Obama won based on his familiar coalition of African-Americans plus college-educated and younger whites. It will be hard (though not impossible) to win if he doesn't make at least some progress with the white working class.

But tonight Obama offered a preview of how he'd try to do that--and how, at the same time, he'd confront McCain.

As he has been doing consistently for the last few weeks, Obama in his speech focused heavily on the economic struggles facing working- and middle-class Americans, blending in stories with broad calls for action:

The woman I met in Indiana who just lost her job, and her pension, and her insurance when the plant where she worked at her entire life closed down--she can’t afford four more years of tax breaks for corporations like the one that shipped her job overseas. ... She needs middle-class tax relief that will help her pay the skyrocketing price of groceries, and gas, and college tuition. 
 
The college student I met in Iowa who works the night shift after a full day of class and still can’t pay the medical bills for a sister who’s ill--she can’t afford four more years of a health care plan that only takes care of the healthy and the wealthy; that allows insurance companies to discriminate and deny coverage to those Americans who need it most. She needs us to stand up to those insurance companies and pass a plan that lowers every family’s premiums and gives every uninsured American the same kind of coverage that Members of Congress give themselves. 

But the more critical section came immediately afterwards, where Obama sketched out his vision for America:

We also believe that we have a larger responsibility to one another as Americans--that America is a place--that America is the place--where you can make it if you try. That no matter how much money you start with or where you come from or who your parents are, opportunity is yours if you’re willing to reach for it and work for it. It’s the idea that while there are few guarantees in life, you should be able to count on a job that pays the bills; health care for when you need it; a pension for when you retire; an education for your children that will allow them to fulfill their God-given potential. That’s the America we believe in. That’s the America I know. 

This vision is a reiteration of Obama's old slogan, "yes we can," but here Obama presents it in a slightly different context than he did, say, back in Iowa. That statement above is not about the possibility of changing politics for the better, which dominated so much of Obama's early rhetoric; it's about the possibility of changing people's lives for the better, which has been the theme of his campaign for the last six weeks or so. 

Of course, those arguments didn't carry the day in Pennsylvania, in good part because Clinton always had an effective response. She could argue that she would do more to help the white working class--because her ideas were better, her mastery of politics and policy were superior, or her will to fight was simply stronger. She was, in effect, matching him ambition for ambition. He believed America could live up to its ideals, but so did she. And it often worked.

But this fight may not play out the same way with McCain, for one simple reason: If Obama's slogan is "yes we can," McCain's is "no we can't."

Obama wants to invest heavily in better schools and public infrastructure? McCain says it will cost too much money. Obama wants to make sure every American has health insurance? McCain says it's socialized medicine. Obama wants to make free trade more humane? McCain's says no, no, no--that's messing with the free market.

Even Obama's calls to change political discourse for the better--the most familiar and, at times, most empty part of his pitch--play into this dynamic. When Obama says he wants to end the politics of division, McCain dismisses it as just a slogan.

Whether you think Obama is right or wrong about these ideas--and, yes, I mostly think he's right--he's setting up the fall as a debate between ambition and timidty, between hope and cynicism, between optimism and pessimism. 

The last two presidential elections that framed the choice this starkly were in 1992, when Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush, and in 1980, when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter. For all of their ideological divisions, the two shared a fundamentally positive vision: Clinton believed in a "place called hope"; Reagan believed it was "morning in America." 

Those phrases sound a lot more like Obama's rhetoric than McCain's. And while it's just one factor in the general election, it helps explain why, for the first time in a while, I too am becoming more optimistic--about Democratic prospects for November.

--Jonathan Cohn

 

 

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