Obama Won the Night But What About Us?

By Jon Kraushar
Communications Consultant

President Obama can now repeat what he said to Republican congressional leaders when they questioned him on January 23 about his stimulus plan.

"I won."

[caption id="attachment_7044" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="President Barack Obama answers a question during his first prime time televised news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)"][/caption]

The pronoun is instructive. Obama, personally, won at last night's press conference. He took control with his opening statement and maintained it by fielding 13 questions--mostly about his stimulus plan--with answers that became lengthy speeches that delivered his planned messages. He was confident, comfortable and coherent (although not concise) as a communicator. Good for him. But was it good for us?

Concerning the more important pronoun: have we, the people won? That remains the perplexing (and unanswerable) question for now and, unfortunately, for the foreseeable future.

That Obama's stimulus plan will go forward is hardly in dispute. It has been approved in the House. The Senate will likely approve it today, and it will shortly go forward in some altered form after congressional reconciliation--all one trillion dollars of it (including interest payments).

But, even as Obama himself admitted last night, "...the plan is not perfect. No plan is. I can't tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope..."

This is true; so to take the question to the next level: willwe win?

All of us have theories. No one now knows.

And that leaves me with my assessment of Obama's press conference. It was another stage in a national exercise in faith that began with his election.

Obama won the presidency not because of his demonstrated record (he hardly had one) but because of his rhetorical skill at playing on ourfaith--on the belief held by a majority of voters that his concept of change (no matter how undefined) has to bebetter and that hehas to be better than what we've had. It was much more a victory of personality than policies. It was a triumph of faith over known facts and that's fair to an extent because in electing anyone we make that leap of faith. We're never sure what we're getting in any president.

But we haven't really progressed from there with Obama--yet. It is only when facts follow faith, when we roll the national dice and find out what numbers a stimulus plan produces in six months, then a year, then a few years that we will judge whether we (and Obama) have won.

This is the ultimate test of whether "yes hecan" turns into "yes wecan."

But before we take it on faith--and on Obama's considerable skill at inspiring that faith--we owe it to ourselves to immerse ourselves in the facts. We must go through the tedium and discipline of analyzing the various drafts of the stimulus bill and the arguments concerning its final form. We must hold our lawmakers to these standards set by Obama last night:

"...an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability, so that every American will be able to go online and see where and how we're spending every dime."

Obama's hypothesis is that:

"...at this particular moment, with the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back into life. It is only government that can break the vicious cycle where lost jobs lead to people spending less money which leads to even more layoffs."

I believe--and so far all but three Republican senators believe--that there is another hypothesis that needs to have much stronger weight in the stimulus bill. I believe that you can't spend your way out of a recession with government bureaucrats making the spending decisions. I also believe that, contrary to what Obama says, the stimulus bill should predominantly be driven by permanent (not one-shot) tax relief and by free market forces, operating with the oversight and transparency that, as Obama agrees, are needed to check and balance greed and illegality.

I believe the president was fair in putting it this way:

"There are others who recognize that we've got to do a significant recovery package, but they're concerned about the mix of what's in there. And if they're sincere about it, then I'm happy to have conversations about this tax cut versus that tax cut, or this infrastructure project versus that infrastructure project."

Let's have that conversation, in earnest. The country and our president both need us now, united and working hard to fulfill what Obama said last night:

"...my whole goal over the next four years is to make sure that whatever arguments are persuasive and backed up by evidence and facts and proof that they can work, that we are pulling people together around that kind of pragmatic agenda."

Yes, we are in a crisis, but no, we should not rush as if in a panic to pass a stimulus bill. We need more facts, due diligence, hard questions, complete transparency, and a fair hearing for all sides in the debate. If we put all that together correctly there's a chance that instead of taking a blind leap of faith we'll take a reasonably informed leap forward.

Then maybe--maybe--we'll be able to say that we all won.

Communications consultant Jon Kraushar is at www.jonkraushar.net.

Communications consultant Jon Kraushar is at www.jonkraushar.net. He is a consultant to corporate and political leaders including Steve Forbes.