Clinton v. Obama: Do Words Matter?

Sunday, January 6, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

When friends and family ask me what I think about the pending Presidential election, I’ve often said that it won’t much matter which Democrat or Republican wins for policy outcomes over the next four years. That is, it may matter which party wins – but not so much which candidate. This seems particularly true on the Democratic side since the policy differences are minor between candidates and Congress will have an important say on priorities and in any major policy changes.

What matters more is how the President uses his moments on stage to set the tone for the policy debates of the future and to begin the hard work of rebuilding the image of government for our own residents, and of the United States for citizens of the world.

With this in mind, I am able to watch debates with relative ease, ignoring squabbles over minor differences in policy proposals, reading or doing other work with the debate playing in the background.

No wonder then that this exchange between Clinton and Obama toward the end of the New Hampshire debate caught my attention.

Do words matter?

Clinton: So, you know, words are not actions. And as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action.

You know, what we’ve got to do is translate talk into action and feeling into reality. I have a long record of doing that, of taking on the very interests that you have just rightly excoriated because of the over-due influence that they have in our government.


OBAMA: Look, I think it’s easy to be cynical and just say, You know what? It can’t be done, because Washington is designed to resist change.

But in fact, there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better.

And I think we’re in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes; not incremental changes, not small changes.

And, you know, so, the truth is, actually, words do inspire, words do help people get involved, words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health-care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy.

Don’t discount that power.

Because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can’t be done, then it doesn’t.

I’m running for president because I want to tell them, Yes, we can, and that’s why I think they’re responding in such large numbers.

I understand the point that Clinton makes here. No one wants a President who utters empty promises followed by deeds in the opposite direction. (Compassionate conservatism anyone?) But, neither do I want a President who undervalues the ability of words and message to inspire. Nor do I want a president who fails to understand the damage that can be done by using words that divide us.

Even those who share values and goals will choose different words to express those goals – and some words ARE better than others.

Consider one of President Clinton’s essential themes: If you work hard and play by the rules, you shouldn’t be poor. Who can disagree with this? We can understand the problem with this choice of words after living through the debate over welfare policy and reauthorization of the landmark bill Clinton signed. His choice of words to frame both welfare reform and employment benefits evoked and reinforced a dominant perception of our society – that people are poor precisely because they DO NOT work hard. Consequently, the welfare debate has been over whether or not people are working hard enough, not whether the labor market has jobs that make it possible for workers to escape poverty.

I don’t question whether President Clinton had the right goals. The original Clinton proposal for welfare reform is one I would (and did) support. But, because the legislative debate was conducted in the dominant and problematic frame, there was no way for his multi-faceted and nuanced proposal to prevail over one that focused on behavior and “personal responsibility”.

We’ve learned this lesson the hard way. And now we know to want a President who is thinking about the long-term impact of his (or her!) choice of words…a President who considers not only whether particular words can win the legislative debate of the moment, but who is always considering whether those words will also support a progressive policy agenda with broad appeal in the future.

In the New Hampshire debate, Clinton appeared to dismiss this concept, while Obama wasn’t afraid to defend the importance of words. He might have responded (as he did at other times in the debate) with a laundry list of policies that reflect his ability to “translate talk into action and feeling into reality”. Instead, eloquently and persuasively, he asked us not to discount the power of words.

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