How Simple Do You Have to Be For the American People?

No doubt, I am not the only American bewildered by the contradictory responses to President Obama’s State if the Union address.  Sounded OK to me, but what did others think?

Charles Blow, in The New York Times on Saturday, noted that the President is “stuck on studious.”  He went over the heads of most Americans:  “People want clear goals, clearly defined and clearly (and concisely) conveyed. They’re suspicious of complexity.”

He believes that the Republicans get that more easily.  Apart from simply saying “no” again and again, their points are easy to follow.  Blow concludes:  “The message that voters take away is not nuanced: Democrats in control. Bill complicated. Republicans oppose. Politicians bicker. Progress stalls. Democrats failing.

“Obama has to accept that today’s information environment is broad and  shallow, and we now communicate in headline phrases, acerbic humor and ad hominem attacks.”  Blow calls it “twitter twaddle.”  (See, “Lost in Translation.”)

Smart Politics, the University of Minnesota’s political science blog, has pointed out that in terms of verbal complexity Obama’s speech was at 8th grade level, two grades below Bush’s SOTU speeches:  “Obama wrote and delivered a speech that incorporated shorter sentences, with those sentences containing shorter words, than nearly every such Presidential Address in the modern era.”  (See, “‘Professor’ Obama? President’s State if the Union Address Notches 4th Lowest Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Score Since FDR.”)

So the President is trying to reach down to us, but I suspect that is not what Blow means.  It is emotional complexity — not verbal complexity — that is the issue.  Blow is arguing, I think, that Obama should mobilize public anger while soothing our economic injuries.  He should divide us into victims and victimizers, the “good” homeowners and the “bad” bankers.

Blow has a point, but I am not sure it is a good point.  Yes, such an approach might shore up the President’s popularity, but we are already so polarized that the long-term costs might well out-weigh the short-term benefits.

The greediness of hedge-fund managers and the short sightedness of bankers are a problem.  That has to be clearly labeled and combated.  On the other hand, they are doing what they always so, what our system is set up to encourage.  But so is the indebtedness of ordinary citizens, their struggle to make ends meet.  They were going down a path cleared by both the public and private sectors.

I see the President trying to find the line between frank discussion of complex issues and taking strong and necessary positions.  Frustrating as it is to observe, he seems to be resisting the temptations of emotional simplification.

Perhaps it is too soon to fault him on that.