Ted Bobrow

The Sweet Spot of Political Speech

By - May 1st, 2009 09:54 am
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As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama was eloquent. He was inspirational, charismatic, a veritable rock star.

Tens of thousands of people turned out to hear him speak at rallies here in the United States as well as abroad.

Now he’s been reduced to reminding us to wash our hands and cover our mouths when we cough.

Mario Cuomo famously said politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose.

But, truth be told, both are incredibly challenging and Obama has demonstrated, once again, that he gets it and is a master at political speech, both soaring and mundane.

Then there’s Vice President Joe Biden.

Joe the VP has a lot going for him but he has his Achilles heel. His tendency to speak off the cuff and stick his foot in his mouth is still getting him in trouble.

Many of his diversions from approved language are humorous, trivial and occasionally truthful. While poking fun at Chief Justice Roberts’s flub following the inauguration was harmless, his claim that Obama would likely be tested during the first 100 days and the admission that the recovery plan had a less than 100 percent chance of succeeding were refreshingly honest.

Yet when Biden went renegade on the Today show yesterday and claimed that he’d recommend his family stay away from confined spaces such as airplanes and subway cars, it was widely agreed that he had muddied the message of the day.

White House officials were quick to clarify about what the vice president had “meant.” There is no reason for healthy people to restrict their normal activities, they said.

Yet many local governments, including Milwaukee, are exercising caution by closing schools believed to be at risk of exposure.

Biden deviated from the official talking points when he switched to the often tried and true perspective of parent. This can be an effective strategy to express empathy for the choices facing average voters and citizens.

But Biden would have been wiser to use this strategy to bolster the party line rather than contradict it.

For example, he could have said “As a father, I understand why many parents may be concerned about sending their kids to school or being anywhere in a crowd. But the risk of infection in most communities is incredibly small and we don’t see a need for changes in most normal behavior.

“The take home message remains sensible steps such as routine hand washing are our best defense from infection though people with flu symptoms should stay home and not go to school or work.”

So far, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Health Commissioner Bevan Baker are effectively walking this fine line. Mayor Barrett even employed the “father” card to explain why he was taking the step to close the schools.

We look to our leaders for clear explanations for their actions as well as cool under pressure. During health emergencies, economic crises and other high-profile challenges, we want to know the essential facts that informed our government’s decisions as well as the implications for our own behaviors.

I give high marks to our local, state and federal authorities for effectively managing this evolving story. Some may feel the coverage has been over the top but it will turn out to be a providential exercise if and when a more serious crisis develops.

Categories: Gray Matter, Politics

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