What John Edwards can teach Barack Obama
John Edwards is persona non grata in the Democratic Party these days. And for good reason.
The former North Carolina senator, two-time presidential candidate and 2004 vice presidential nominee wrote his own political obituary with his marital infidelities and an ongoing investigation into campaign finance irregularities during his 2008 campaign.
But, as we’ve written before, Edwards has had considerable influence on the current positioning of his party on the national political scene.
Perhaps Edwards’ largest lasting legacy is his “Two Americas” speech, an address that perhaps best encapsulates the frustrations and anger coursing through the American electorate at the moment — and one that President Obama would do well to read and adapt for his own 2012 re-election campaign. (The term “Two Americas” was actually created by longtime Edwards aide Christina Reynolds.)
Although Edwards had been giving some version of his “Two Americas” speech since late 2003, he drew national attention to it when he delivered it at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. It was so well received that he subsequently turned it into the centerpiece of his 2008 presidential bid. (You can read the full speech here.)
Joe Trippi, the lead strategist for Edwards’ 2008 campaign, said that as that campaign wore on the other candidates in the field did everything they could to embrace the rhetorical power of “Two Americas”.
“Coming down the stretch in Iowa in 2008 many of us in the Edwards campaign became worried because Obama was moving closer and closer to the ‘Two Americas’ message,” said Trippi. “Americans responded to that message in 2004. And they responded to that message in 2008. It’s even more relevant in 2012.”
At its heart, “Two Americas” was an economic populist paean — driving home the sense that the distance between the haves and the have-nots was not only widening, but also that the system was somehow rigged to favor those with money and power.
“We have much work to do because the truth is we still live in a country where there are two different Americas,” Edwards said in the speech. “One for all of those people who have lived the American dream and don’t have to worry and another for most Americans, everybody else who struggles to make ends meet every single day. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Edwards went on to offer a series of examples of the “Two Americas” from the health care industry to public education to jobs and the economy.
“You know what happens if something goes wrong, if you have a child that gets sick, a financial problem, a layoff in the family — you go right off the cliff,” he said. “And when that happens what’s the first thing that goes? Your dreams. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Those sentiments are perhaps mor relevant today than when Edwards first uttered them nearly seven years ago. The decline in the American economy has stretched much of the country thin and contributed to an increasing sense that the game is rigged.
That appears to be the central animating principle of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and the other gatherings it has spawned across the country and across the world. The “We are the 99 percent” slogan is, really, just another way of expressing the “Two Americas” message that Edwards put into common parlance in 2004.
And it’s that sentiment that the White House is hoping to tap into as President Obama tries to find a way to re-energize the Democratic base in advance of 2012.
Senior White House adviser David Plouffe openly acknowledged as much to the Post’s Peter Wallsten over the weekend. “We intend to make it one of the central elements of the campaign next year,” Plouffe said of the efforts to harness the “Occupy” energy. “One of the main elements of the contrast will be that the president passed Wall Street reform and our opponent and the other party want to repeal it.”
That is, of course, easier said than done. Edwards was a natural populist, the latest in a long line of (primarily southern) politicians who drew on their humble upbringings to make the case that they were the voice of the common man. (See Clinton, Bill.)
(Edwards began his “Two Americas” speech by noting that his father had worked in a mill his entire life; “I still remember vividly the men and women who worked in that mill with him. I can see them. Some of them had lint in their hair; some of them had grease on their faces,” he said.)
Obama is gifted at many things as a politician but populism is not one of them. He’s not terribly comfortable as a “people versus the powerful” messenger and isn’t good at faking it. His rhetoric has taken on a more populist edge of late, however, as he seeks to cast Republicans as the friend of Wall Street while painting himself as the voice of the every man.
“If [Republicans] vote against these [jobs] proposals again, if they vote against taking steps now to put Americans back to work right now then they’re not going to have to answer to me, they’re going to have to answer to you,” Obama told an audience today in North Carolina.
The question for many Democratic strategists, however, is whether Obama will keep up that sort of rhetoric and whether he can convince voters that he really gets their heartaches and hopes.
“He is not the natural voice of the message, but because he feels the anger, and the gap has become so severe he can get there,” predicted one senior party operative. “I think Obama can do it, but needs to remind people that he passed Wall Street reform, that Wall Street is now trying to water [it] down, that he is fighting for jobs [and] that the GOP is resisting to protect the top 2 percent.”
Edwards’ political career is over, done in by his own self-destructive behavior. But, the power of his “Two Americas” message can — and almost certainly would — resonate if President Obama can find a way to (in the immortal words of American Idol’s Randy Jackson) “make it his own.”
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