Saturday, September 5, 2009

Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President,

Next Wednesday night, You will will give what's been described as the most important speech of his career. Wednesday night will be about promises kept or promises broken. Wednesday night, we will know the emotional truth.

Here's why.

First, a little background. I was an RFO (regional field organizer) for the Obama campaign during the general election. I helped organize and run literally hundreds of phone banks in my congressional district (CA-36) and sent thousands of volunteers to Nevada to register voters. From August, 2008 to Election Day we recruited 1,500 volunteers who made over half a million phone calls to swing states all over the country.

For five months, I gave up my "day job" as a film editor on theatrical films and network dramas to work on the campaign. About that job; Essentially, it can be boiled down to this: I manipulate sound, images and language to create the desired emotional response in a viewer. Give me a couple of close ups of people's faces, a wide shot, an explosion and the right piece of music and I can make you angry, sad, or laugh - depending on how I manipulate those elements.

My point is this: Republicans understand - have always understood - this very, very well. They'll take a set of facts and figures, find the emotional truth inside all that information that they want to push and go for it.

Presto-chango, end of life counseling becomes "death panels", reducing fraud and inefficiencies in Medicare become "pulling the plug on grandma"

One of the great joys for me in working on your campaign was being involved with people who understood this concept very, very well too. Although I had no part in the messaging of the campaign myself, I watched with great appreciation how the campaign tapped into the emotions of it's volunteers. They took a demoralized activist base beaten down by 8 years of quasi-fascist rule and lifted us up with three simple words and one simple concept - "Respect, empower, and include" and "CHANGE".

Day after day, they used these concepts, ritualized them, repeated them, made them into a mantra. They created the emotional truth around which the campaign drew it's power.

To this day I still tear up when I remember how, at the end of Camp Obama, our facilitator told everyone in the room to close their eyes and envision Obama and his family on January 20 - to envision Michelle and her girls as they stood to watch their father take the oath of office. And I can tell you, when I was there on the Mall and watched it happen for real, it was all I could do not to break down.

But whatever alchemy created this understanding during the campaign has all but vanished in the last few months. I know so many OFA staff and volunteers who do everything they can to keep this spirit alive, but it's not really coming from you anymore. The arguments for health care, even the pledges OFA asks constituents to sign - do not contain even a whiff of emotional truth. Even the health care horror stories collected by OFA have been stripped of their emotion, filed away to be trotted out in mild DNC ads or handed over to congressional members. These stories need to be used, repeated, and ritualized for the entire country - they need to become the nation's emotional truth.

Instead the administration is pushing policy arguments, lists of ideas, pieces of paper. And they shrivel and die next to Sarah Palin's Down Syndrome baby and the reptile fear of people of clinging desperately to whatever they have left after a brutal recession.

So here we are. What now?

Well, if you really do punt on the public option, it will be a disaster for you and for us. And not because of policy. No, this will be our Waterloo moment because emotional truth and actual truth will collide.

Those of us who feel the most passionately about this, the "left of the left" if you will (although, I live in Venice, there are people here who equate me with George Bush, honest to god), will see a President who did not respect, empower and include them. We will feel that we have no more voice in this administration than we did the last.

That will be our emotional truth.

Worse, Republicans will see that bullying, being disruptive, and tapping into people's worst fears and instincts works, and will use it on each and every piece of legislation the White House tries to pass for the next 3 years. It's happening on climate change legislation now. Combine that with a disillusioned, disempowered activist left and I'm seeing damage to the Democratic Party well past the 2010 election cycle.

So on Wednesday night, the only thing I'm going to be watching for is the narrative our Story-Teller-In-Chief brings to the American people. I will be watching for the emotional truth.

That is what the fight over the public option is all about - it is not about policy. When we helped elect you, we entered into an implied agreement. We expected Change, we expected to respected, empowered and included, we expected you to fight, and we expected to join you in that fight.

Wednesday night will be a promise kept or a promise broken. It will be our moment of truth.

I'm rooting for you, Mr. President.

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