Friday, September 7, 2012

Did the President Say What Many Americans Don't Want to Hear: or Did He Strike the Right Tone?

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last night, President Obama gave a very different message than he did in the same speech four years ago.

In 2008, Obama's overall message was one of "hope and change." Four years later, the message is considerably toned-down. He said, "you didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell the truth."

Maybe that made for a good sound bite and maybe that statement should be true, but history would tell Obama a different story. In the midst of a staggering economic downturn at the end of the 1970s that was bleeding over into 1980, Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter, not because people wanted to hear the truth, but because they wanted a leader who would make them feel better about themselves. Jimmy Carter, president from 1977 to 1980, had tried to tell the American people "the truth," and the response was either flat or negative (depending on whether you see the glass as half full or half empty).

The lesson from the Carter-Reagan election of 1980 should be that the American people don't want their president to "tell the truth" if that message is that hard times are going to linger and belts need to be tightened. If Romney can send a more positive message, and I'm sure that he will try, he may be following the lessons of Reagan. Obama would do well not to emulate Jimmy Carter. (remember, he lost).

But there are clear signs that Obama has learned from the missteps of Jimmy Carter. Toward the end of Obama's acceptance speech, he said, "as I stand here tonight, I have never been more hopeful about America. Not because I think I have all the answers. Not because I’m naive about the magnitude of our challenges.I’m hopeful because of you." 

Starting with a cautionary tone, he finished strong. And he finished positive. He has clearly paid attention to history.

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