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Obama goes back to go forward

President Barack Obama speaking in Los Angeles last week.
By Katie Zezima
The Washington Post (*)

Rhetorical shift to keep ‘hope and change’ alive

WASHINGTON — Yes, we can — bring back talk of hope and change.

US President Barack Obama ascended to — and stayed in — the Oval Office by campaigning on the lofty ideals of hope and change, urging citizens to reject pessimism and look toward a more promising future.

Five and a half years into his presidency, Obama no longer has to run for re-election. But he is resurrecting his campaign rhetoric in a different context: as part of a midterm strategy of public speeches that hammer Republicans, he will return to the aspirational language that helped elevate him to office.

Obama’s revival of hope and change is born out of something much more calculated — a boiled-over frustration with congressional Republicans who he said do little but obstruct policy, and the reality that Obama must do all he can ahead of the midterm elections to help Democrats keep the Senate and gain House seats.

Obama has urged high school graduates and college graduates this week not to fall victim to cynicism, and he’s reminded attendees at a fundraiser in Minneapolis that they should keep faith in Washington Democrats and that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and others are working hard. In Los Angeles, Denver and Austin, Texas, Obama told crowds that hope prevails while simultaneously railing against Republicans.

“Cynicism is popular these days. It’s what passes off as wisdom,” Obama told a raucous crowd at the Paramount Theatre in Austin this month. “Hope is a better choice. Hope is what gave young soldiers the courage to storm a beach. Hope is what gave young people the strength to march for women’s rights and civil rights and voting rights and gay rights and immigrant rights.”

On Thursday in Los Angeles, he repeated the theme: “Cynicism has never won a war, or cured a disease, or started a business, or fed a young mind.”

The change in language and emphasis is part of a concerted strategy by the White House to counter what the administration sees as a Republican plan to emphasize bad news ahead of the November elections and blame Obama for it.

In some ways, the new tone is a return to the type of aspirational language he used in 2012 to win re-election, and the caveats and punches he used to fight off Republican criticism. Except this time around Obama’s approach is two pronged, focused on fighting cynicism and hitting Republicans harder than ever to highlight the differences between the two parties as November approaches. He is countering Republicans with the grand language of optimism but excoriating the party in a way he has been loath to do before.

“The Republican political strategy is founded on cynicism, which is: the more cynical people are, the less they participate, the better they (Republicans) do,” said White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer. “We are trying to push back on this very hard. That is sort of the core of what the president is talking about.”

In many ways, Obama’s recent speeches unfold like a play in three acts: warming up the crowd, beating up Republicans and closing with an emphasis on hope and change, particularly in the context of the middle class, that leaves the already friendly audience fired up and on its feet.

“I would say for approximately, whatever it’s been, five years and nine months, Democrats and Congress have been urging him to do that, and he’s been reluctant to do so because they felt his image of being above the fray is helpful,” said a Democratic operative close to Obama who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But given that Democrats must do all they can to hold the Senate, the calculus has changed.

“I think he’s gotten to the point where his frustration level is pretty high, but also from a political point of view,” this is what Obama must do, the operative said.

Republicans don’t agree.

“I think it’s absurd,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “I think that there’s nothing cynical or wrong about believing in public policies that the president doesn’t support. I think that we’ve seen other presidents like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan and other presidents learn to work with opposition parties.”

In Anaheim, California, Obama poked fun at Republicans who don’t believe in climate change, likening them to people who think the moon is made of cheese. In Austin, he compared congressional Republicans to a scene from the Martin Scorsese movie The Departed and mocked them for plans to sue him and talk of impeachment. In Denver, Obama made fun of Republicans who, he said, are angry with him for doing his job.

“Sue him. Impeach him. Really?” Obama said, chuckling at times. “You’re going to use taxpayer money to sue me for doing my job while you don’t do your job?”

Obama then shifts course, holding up some of the people who have written him letters — a Texas college student, a Minnesota working mother, a Colorado small-business owner, a Los Angeles teacher — as paragons of hope, people who poured the story of their lives into a letter to the president and yearned for it to be read by the White House.

“Hope is what compelled Kinsey to sit down and pick up a pen, and ask, ‘What can I do?’ and actually think maybe the president might read that story and it might make a difference,” Obama said of University of Texas student Kinsey Button, who wrote to the White House when both of her parents were unemployed. The 20-year-old had coffee with Obama and introduced him in Austin.

The letter writers do more than bolster Obama’s return to the language of hope and change. They allow him to remind people that not too long ago he was just another Chicago resident working to pay off student loans and balance career and family. Even first lady Michelle Obama is bringing back hope and change.

“So today, when folks ask me whether I still believe everything we said about hope and change back in 2008, I tell them that I believe it more strongly than ever before — because I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” she said at a fundraiser in Chicago on Thursday.

While her husband is not running for office this year, he is on the campaign trail and using his tried-and-true tactics — for other Democrats.

“So make no mistake about it: Barack’s last campaign was not in 2012, Barack’s last campaign is this year, 2014,” she said.

But Steel said the language Obama is employing is just a retread.

“He first must set fire to the straw men and must go to his greatest hits,” Steel said.

Obama has also used the letter writers as another way to burst the White House bubble that has been particularly suffocating to him of late. Obama discussed his “broke” basketball shot with men at a diner in Los Angeles, grabbed burgers stuffed with cheese with a letter writer in Minneapolis, had pizza with a microbrew-swilling crew in Denver and took Button out for coffee.

“When I listen to Alex or I listen to Carolyn or I listen to any of the folks that I met with, I see myself in them. Because I remember my first minimum-wage job — at Baskin-Robbins,” Obama said at Cheesman Park in Denver this month. “I think about what it was like for me to finance college. I think about child-care costs when Michelle and I were first starting out with Malia and Sasha. Your stories are ours. You’re why I ran.”

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