Commentary | Wages, Incomes, and Wealth

The Great Communicator

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


The Great Communicator

by David Kusnet

Sen. Barack Obama’s acceptance speech signaled a subtle shift in his message from the lofty and lyrical “change we can believe in” to the more detailed and down-to-earth “change that we need.”

Obama’s speech was unusually specific not only about what he wants to do but also about whose interests and values he seeks to serve. Using the words “work” or “worker” at least 37 times, he presented his program as a series of proposals that would make the economy work for the working class voters who, as observers across the political spectrum agree, will decide this election.

Beginning and concluding with poetic passages about “America’s promise,” the core of Obama’s speech was a straightforward explanation of whom he represents, what he believes, and what he wants to do.

Presenting himself as a product and proponent of middle America, Obama told the stories of hardworking heroes he has known — the laid-off steelworkers on the South Side of Chicago whom he organized; his grandfather “who marched in Patton’s Army and was rewarded by a grateful nation with the chance to go to college on the G.I. Bill”; his grandmother “who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle management”; and his mother “who raised my sister and me on her own while she worked and earned her degree.”

“It is on behalf of them that I intend to win this election,” Obama, recalling Bill Clinton’s statement in 1992 that he accepted the nomination “in the name of the forgotten middle class.” In a notably populist passage, Obama made it clear that his economic policies focus on the wellbeing of working Americans. “We measure progress by how many people can find a job that pays the mortgage, whether you can put a little extra money away at the end of each month so you can someday watch your child receive her college diploma,” he declared, adding shortly afterwards, “not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500.”

Turning from whom he’ll fight for to what he stands for, Obama identified himself with two basic values that Americans espouse, sometimes to the bewilderment of political, corporate and media elites — “individual responsibility and mutual responsibility.”

“That’s the promise of America — the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation,” Obama declared. “Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves — protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology. Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who’s willing to work.”

Comparing his own beliefs with his rivals’ views, Obama said President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain stand for an extreme and “discredited” philosophy: “Give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is — you’re on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps — even if you don’t have boots. You’re on your own.” (The contrast between the view that “You’re on your own” and the value that “we’re in this together” is a theme of the writings of Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute, an informal economic advisor to Obama.)

Having explained which people and which principles he represents, Obama explained “exactly what that change would mean if I am president.” Setting forth a remarkably progressive economic agenda, Obama said he would cut taxes on 95 percent of working families, get rid of tax break for corporations that “ship jobs overseas” and “start giving them to companies that create good jobs right here in America; create five million new green jobs “that pay well and can’t ever be outsourced” and end American addiction to foreign oil; and invest in early childhood education, public schools, college opportunity, and America’s infrastructure.

Not since Ronald Reagan set forth his conservative convictions in his acceptance speech in 1980 — a year when Americans were dissatisfied with the economic conditions and overwhelmingly rejected the incumbent president’s party — has a nominee spoke so clearly about his governing philosophy and his economic agenda.

Whether Obama, like Reagan, will win a clear mandate from anxious voters remains to be seen. But this much is apparent: Once again, a clearly defined set of beliefs has found a Great Communicator.

David Kusnet is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.


See related work on Income and wages | Wages, Incomes, and Wealth

See more work by David Kusnet