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Everyone marvels at Barack Obama’s rhetorical prowess. But don’t be overly bedazzled. With these 13 easy steps, you, too, can give a Barack Obama speech.
1) Create a false center. In his speech to a joint session of Congress, Obama positioned himself between the Left’s calling for a single-payer system and the Right’s agitating to end employer-based health insurance. Presto — he’s the very definition of a centrist. Anyone advocating almost any position can benefit from the same insta-centrism.
2) Scorn ideology. Obama warned against “the usual Washington ideological battles.” Message: He has no philosophical commitments himself. He’s pushing a Great Society redux only as a matter of practicality. Superficial pragmatism is the ideologue’s best friend.
3) Talk about your openness to ideas from opponents. The more you do this, the less you have to adopt any of their ideas. “I will continue to seek common ground,” Obama said. “I will be there to listen. My door is always open.” While he does all this common-ground seeking, he will be whipping up the Democratic votes to pass a massive, liberal reordering of the health-care system. But he’ll be listening!
4) Embrace empty symbolic measures as a show of reasonableness. The centrist, nonideological, open-minded leader needs something tangible to demonstrate all these qualities, lest anyone suspect it’s a rhetorical put-on. This is why God, in his goodness, created the demonstration project. In a bow to Republicans, Obama blessed medical-malpractice experiments in the states. Thus, he takes the most tentative step toward a GOP idea while marching his Democrats toward an overhaul of one-sixth of the economy by Thanksgiving.
5) Make lawyerly distinctions too subtle for most people to notice. Never underestimate the power of the cagey formulation. Obama said people won’t be “required” to change their current arrangements if they like them. That sounds reassuring even though it leaves open the likelihood that millions will have to change insurance as a result of his plan. (Caution: May require the aid of experienced policy hands and professional speechwriters.)
6) Say things just because they sound good. Why not? Obama always says he’ll reduce costs even though the Democratic plans do little or nothing to reduce costs. That’s his sound bite, and he’s sticking to it.
7) Dissemble as necessary. Don’t hesitate to brazen it out as needed. The House plan authorizes the secretary of health and human services to include abortion coverage in the public option. But Obama insists reform won’t cover abortion, and accuses his opponents of lying when they say it will. Shamelessness has its advantages, especially if a compliant press will overlook it.
8) Make the price right. Washington’s new standard for expensive is $1 trillion. Naturally, Obama’s plan came in at $900 billion. He might as well have said it will cost $999.999 billion.
9) Never admit any cost or downside to what you are proposing. Even an unparalleled genius of an orator has trouble selling things people don’t like. So don’t do it. Obama stipulated the new taxes will fall on insurers and drug companies. And, oh yeah, don’t say “taxes.” They are “revenues” and “fees.” Or, in the case of employers, it’s called “chipping in.” As for the Medicare cuts, all of them will come from “waste and fraud” and “unnecessary subsidies.” See how easy this is?
10) Couple attacks on your critics as unworthy hacks with calls for civility. If you favor “a civil conversation,” you can better dismiss your opponents for their “bickering” and “games.”
11) Be sure to say something like “this is the time.” Evocations of the urgency of the moment sound bold and determined. E.g., “Now is the time to deliver on health care,” because “here and now we will meet history’s test.” The status quo can’t be accepted: “Not this time. Not now.”
12) At least once a speech, keep talking over the applause. This is inspiring.
13) Load it up in a teleprompter. And repeat as necessary.