Barack Obama’s convention speech was the last time he had the undivided attention of the American people to make a sustained argument for his candidacy. The debates will be critical as everyone agrees. But, in the meantime, he can frame the race by delivering four soundbites that hit on key issues and, just as important, flesh out what he means by change and the promise it holds for the voters who will decide the election. Those voters are white, ethnic Catholics with no college education, who make less than fifty thousand dollars a year, living in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan and Latinos who will prove decisive in Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.
1) "If we could convert our factories in a few months after Pearl Harbor from making cars to making tanks and planes, we can convert our factories today from making gas guzzlers to hybrids. Don’t tell me we can’t do that – We haven’t tried!"
Setting: In front of a factory in Michigan, ideally one that was built before World War II but that is less important than the can-do message. In the event, he is not only sketching a very specific kind of change that would improve the environment and bring much-needed jobs to hard-hit Michigan, he is linking that promise to a specific history that is a source of national pride. As an added benefit, it touches his personal biography: Obama’s grandmother went to work in a factory during WWII.
2) "You shouldn’t need a college degree to fulfill your dreams." Setting: In a speech to students at a vocational school in Ohio. Obama often refers to the difficulty in affording college as an example of the economic tough times. But, many people are not going to college and non-college, blue collar voters has been a particularly difficult demographic for him to crack. This is a line that should have been in his acceptance speech but it speaks directly to those voters whom Hillary Clinton called the forgotten and the invisible. Obama needs to stop forgetting them.
3) "Do we really want government agents separating parents from their children? Pope Benedict was right: We need family-friendly immigration reform." Setting: The St. Bridget’s Church in Pottsville, Iowa, the town that witnessed a large immigration raid last May. The church became a place of sanctuary after the raid as the town struggled to find homes for the children whose parents were arrested. This is the message Latinos care about but it also resonates with traditional ethnic Catholics in the East. This family-first approach also resonates with evangelicals. Not least, the issue makes McCain squirm because he had to backtrack on his previous support for humane immigration reform in order to secure the GOP nomination.
4) "You all helped John F. Kennedy win his battle against anti-Catholic bigotry. I need you to help us win another battle against bigotry today." Setting: The monument to the "Fighting Irish Brigade" at Gettysburg, a brigade that consisted of Irish Catholic regiments from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York and fought a crucial part of the battle on Day 2 at Gettysburg. Obama is reluctant to face the race issue head-on, understandably. But, circumstances might require it, as they did last spring, and for the same reason: Pastor Jeremiah Wright. In retrospect, this monument might have been a better backdrop for the speech about race Obama gave at the Constitution Museum in Philadelphia, a speech that played soaringly to his vision of America but did not necessarily connect with the white, ethnic Catholics whose votes he needs. But, if Wright or some other cause requires Obama to address the race issue, he should tie his struggle to the fight against bigotry that Kennedy faced. As Governor Barry Schweitzer said in his speech to the Democratic National Convention, he grew up in a home which, like virtually every Catholic home, had a crucifix and a picture of JFK.
Obama needs to keep the focus off of the cultural template in which he is an elitist and McCain (the guy with nine houses) is the average Joe. That means directing the message. He needs to talk to swing voters about their memories and their dreams, and connect them to his vision for America’s future. Pictures are worth a thousand words and, at this stage of the campaign, you don’t get a thousand words. But, a few well-placed soundbites, with the right backdrop, could help Obama connect with the voters who will decide his political fate in November.
Michael Sean Winters