President Obama will address Congress about jobs Thursday evening, the night the Saints and Packers kick off the NFL season. Which will Fred watch? (More)

What Fred Will Hear About Jobs (Non-Cynical Saturday)

Rather than a series, this week Morning Feature has bounced around several topics. Thursday we discussed the argument that President Obama should channel FDR. Yesterday we examined a different approach to helping more American workers earn a living wage. Today we consider the role of Fred Whispering in progressive Democratic activism.

Back to spaghetti

As I wrote on Thursday, this week’s topics emerged over a spaghetti dinner during a local Democratic Party committee meeting this week. Everyone at the meeting is a pragmatic, committed Democratic activist. They are people who can share their frustrations about our nation, our political dialogue, and our leaders, and finish with “So we have to work even harder to turn out Democratic voters next year.”

That is the primary task of a local Democratic Party. During an election campaign, we work for the party and we focus on reaching out to Democrats. Our canvass and phone-bank lists are screened for registered Democrats. As one member put it, “Our job is to turn out the Democratic base, so our candidates can focus on independent voters.”

There are several reasons for that. Most local Democratic Party groups lack the time and people to canvass and phone-bank independents. In terms of efficient use of limited resources, we generate the most votes for Democratic candidates by focusing our efforts on Democratic voters. Moreover, many of our members are already stepping out of their comfort zones to canvass or phone-bank. Talking with other Democrats lessens the number of rude and angry responses. Finally, our candidates want message discipline, so they want to reach out to independents personally and through their own staff and volunteers.

In terms of allocating resources and tasks in an election campaign, having local Democratic Party groups focus their voter outreach on registered Democrats is absolutely reasonable.

“No, but I heard about it.”

We also encounter political conversations in other settings, and I’ll venture a guess that many will happen next Friday and Saturday. On Wednesday evening, the Republican presidential candidates will debate at the Reagan Library. On Thursday evening, President Obama will address a joint session of Congress to propose an agenda focused on jobs.

The timing of the address was yet another occasion for partisan bickering. President Obama asked Speaker Boehner to convene Congress for the address on Wednesday and – for the first time in U.S. history – a Speaker of the House refused such a request from a President of the United States. It’s tempting to dismiss that as a tempest in a Beltway teapot, but TPM‘s David Kurtz shared a reader email that offers another perspective, one well worth reading.

Still, by Friday President Obama and all of the GOP candidates – plus a Republican designated to give the official rebuttal – will have spoken on national television within the past 48 hours … and the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers will have kicked off the 2011 NFL season. And I’ll venture a guess that conversations like this will happen across America:

Fred: Did you see the game last night?

Activist: Yep. [Star player] had a great game.

Fred: Sure did. I couldn’t believe that [amazing play].

Activist: Yes, that was amazing. Did you watch Obama’s speech on jobs?

Fred: No, but I heard about it.

The bully pulpit and its limits

Many progressive Democrats want President Obama to unveil a bold jobs program Thursday. Perhaps just as important, many want the president to confront Republican obstructionism and the GOP agenda, to show he “stands for something and is ready to fight for it.” I agree that would encourage us as progressives. And as TPM‘s Josh Marshall notes, President Obama has no reason to weigh legislative practicality into his address. Republicans have already made it clear that they will reject any Obama policy that might help the economy before November 2012, including an extension of the Social Security payroll tax holiday. When Republicans reject even tax cuts to stimulate job growth, it’s not a disagreement over ideology. It’s partisan sabotage, and many of us would like to hear the president call it out.

In other words, we want President Obama to use the bully pulpit to shift the national political dialogue. And as Marshall also notes, that has been the strategic plan in the White House since the debt ceiling deal: offer a jobs agenda that will resonate with independents, and spend the next 14 months daring Republicans to pass that agenda in Congress. Let the 2012 election campaign start next week, and make it about Republicans demanding tax breaks for Charles while Democrats protect Social Security and Medicare and propose a jobs agenda to help Fred.

I agree with that strategy. But remember that conversation above, and Fred’s reply: “No, but I heard about it.”

Media surveys show Fred is more likely to watch the NFL pregame than the president’s speech. The same surveys show most Freds won’t have heard about the president’s speech from cable news or talk radio. Fred may have glanced at headlines in a local newspaper if one was lying around, or on the internet when he went online to do something else.

More likely, Fred will have heard about the president’s speech from family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and other casual conversations. In short, he’ll have heard about the president’s speech from you, if you are an active Fred Whisperer. If you’re not – and if other Democrats in your community tend to avoid political discussions except with other Democrats – Fred will have heard about the president’s speech from …

… Republicans. And in that case, President Obama’s words won’t matter much at all.


I grew up in an evangelical Christian home, and I often heard the metaphor of the lifeguard. When someone is flailing in the water, it does no good to stand on the shore, wave, and yell “Swim over here!” The person in the water needs the lifeguard to come into the water. The application in that religious tradition was that it’s not enough to come to church on Sunday and do other activities with each other. To be spiritual lifeguards, we had to go into the water: to share our faith and our values with others in our communities.

Republicans apply that same principle to politics, perhaps because of their party’s links with evangelical Christianity. I’ve rarely met a Republican who won’t jump into or even initiate a political conversation. They’re eager to tell you what they think, and what you should think. They have an arsenal of anecdotes and aphorisms to illustrate their political values. You can bet Fred will hear about President Obama’s speech from at least one Republican, even if there’s only one Republican in Fred’s town.

As Democratic Party lifeguards, we also need to go into the water and talk with Fred. We need to make sure Fred doesn’t only hear about President Obama’s speech from Republicans. We need to help Fred into the Democratic boat, and row back to a Democratic shore. Our boat is not perfect and our shore is not a tropical paradise, but our boat and our shore are a lot safer than what the Republicans offer.

Our Democratic Party activist duties should focus on Democrats: recruiting, training, canvassing, phone-banking, and related efforts to get registered Democrats to vote.

Our Democratic Party lifeguard duties should focus on Fred: casual conversations with family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and the like to share our progressive values.

We need to do both, or what President Obama says Thursday won’t matter … because Fred will only hear about it from Republicans. And we won’t like what they tell him.


Happy Saturday!