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Obama and Values-Based Messaging

10:00 AM, Jan 26, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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I believe the folks over at The Democratic Strategist write some of the most insightful analyses of contemporary American politics. Ed Kilgore's recent post on Obama and Values-Based messaging continues that tradition.

Many conservative pundits and Republican activists criticized President Obama during the campaign -- and even his inaugural address -- because he was "too vague." His speeches never include enough specifics. Exactly "how" would all this change come about? Instead, his rhetoric usually provided a broad narrative of hope, opportunity and change without getting into the details. This frustrated his political opponents who dismissed him as either a policy lightweight or a charlatan. Turns out he's neither.

There's a method to Obama's vagueness. He speaks to Americans in language most agree with and understand. This gets people to listen. He then pursues more "progressive" (some would say liberal) policies to fill in the details. Kilgore agrees. He writes that the central idea behind values-based messaging is:

that progressives in politics and government can and should build the largest possible audience for our more partisan policy goals and individual programs by embracing broadly-shared values that we often take for granted, but don't articulate, making us vulnerable to the kinds of conservative stereotypes that have been so effective in the past.

Kilgore believes Obama embraces this rhetorical/political strategy better than most.

Whatever you think of this or that speech, Barack Obama is clearly a master of values-based messaging. And the inaugural address did not simply embrace broadly shared values beyond those usually emphasized by progressives; he went out of his way to argue that values often placed in opposition to each other are both reconcilable and essential (e.g., liberty and security, and public-sector activism and "free" markets). This may sound dangerously like Third Wayism to many progressives, but if reflects the fact that big majorities of the American people do in fact embrace such "contradictory" values, and do not want to see them vanquished or ignored.

Like it or not, I believe he's right. Political elites and the pundit class view the world in left/right ideological terms. Most others do not. The so-called "middle" in American politics -- to the extent one exists -- is far less ideological. Obama recognizes this and it's one of the keys to his rhetorical and political success. He speaks a broad language most not heavily immersed in policy details or legislative intricacies understand. Republicans and conservatives could learn a lot from this strategy. Read the full post of values-based messaging here.