Advice for Obama From a Self-Proclaimed Cracker

I'm what people in the Washington press corps would derisively call a cracker, by which they don't mean the thin, savory biscuit they enjoy with a nice glass of shar-do-nay. I'm a Southern white male Appalachian ridge runner. And though I've never been a huge fan of President Barack Obama's politics, I do wish him well and want him to succeed. Because even more than I love being a reactionary curmudgeon, I love America. I want my country to be prosperous and strong, mainly so companies will start buying magazine ads again and my two kids can go to college.

But it's going to be difficult. After all, Obama's party controls only the presidency and roughly 60 percent of the seats in the House and Senate. To get any kind of momentum with those sorts of odds stacked against him, it's going to take a miracle to make real change. That or some really great advice from a bunch of journalists.

Sure, Obama has already gotten tons of helpful hints from media types, especially from my place of employment. A recent newsweek cover titled "The Inspiration Gap" spelled out the way forward, according to us; much as our issue titled "The Bubba Gap" did exactly the same thing back during the presidential campaign. The problem with all that high-minded mind-the-gap advice, however, is that no actual Bubbas were involved, except, arguably, Joe Scarborough. And a lot of it, frankly, is of the blame-the-yokels variety.

That's where I come in: Dear Mr. President, Tuttle here with advice on how to save your presidency. (You're welcome.)

Whether you like it or not, real change is going to be next to impossible unless you start doing a better job of communicating with my people: the tea partiers. They're angry as hell—thus all the tea partying—and I know this firsthand, because a few of them are kin to me. But it's not hopeless. Not all of them think you're a socialist or a Muslin. Nor a Muslim, for that matter.

No matter what you do, you'll never convince all of these folks to give you a fair listen. You don't have to. You just need to slow down the runaway elephant a little. A recent poll showed that 39 percent of Republicans want you impeached, and about a third think you weren't born in the United States. These are the people wearing "Welcome Back, Carter" T shirts and sporting "How's That Hopey Changey Thing Going?" bumper stickers on their decidedly nonhybrid SUVs. These are the people who did not laugh their way through Glenn Beck's The Christmas Sweater. Forget about these people. They are lost to you. You will never, ever, ever win them over.

But that still leaves a vast sea of voters who, like me, want you to turn things around. (And we're mad at the Republicans, too, by the way.) These voters exist somewhere between the so-called people who matter and the tea partiers. They're the "everyday Americans," as you sometimes refer to them. Lesson 1: Don't refer to them as "everyday Americans." Refer to them as "Americans." Lose the qualifier; it's insulting and condescending. Seriously.

You can also stop dropping your G's and pretending you like beer when you're out on the road in blue-collar zones, as The Washington Post reported in a front-page story this week, titled "A Middle-Class President's Paradox." There is no bias against words ending in "ing" outside the beltway. Sarah Palin does this, and she's a complete phony. You can connect without being faux folksy. But it's not intellectually lazy to keep things simple, as long as you don't condescend. Think of the memorable quotes from some of our country's most popular presidents: "Tear down this wall!" or "The buck stops here," or "I did not have sex with that woman." These phrases resonate through time, and the presidents who said them appear in your head instantly.

If you are unable to start doing a better job of connecting, by 2011 you will be down 10 points in the polls to the Palin-Scott Brown ticket, or looking at a challenge from Hillary within your own party. You read it here first. (OK, maybe not first: a Google search for the phrase "Hillary challenge Obama in 2012" gets thousands of hits.) And say what you will about Sarah, she knows how to keep it simple. When Glenn Beck asked who her favorite Founding Father was, the best she could come up with was "Um...you know, well, all of them...". But she also knows how to work the fears of the crowd. She saw your "single payer" and raised you a "death panel." Bye-bye, health care.

That's my point, Mr. Obama. I work at a newsmagazine, and I never really knew what was in your health plan. It was not communicated clearly. Hell, half the people who voted for it still don't know what was in it. And when things aren't explained clearly, they become scary to everyday people—whoops, I mean people—and it's easy for the big insurance companies and the lobbyists and the Palins to put their own stamps on them. Because you let them. Don't let them. Get out in front and state simply what you want to accomplish. Don't dress it up to impress the eggheads who write articles about What It All Means.

This gets us to the crux of your problem. Despite your soaring rhetoric and beautifully buffed speeches, you haven't been a very good communicator in your first year. You confuse silky words and lofty delivery with communication. I don't need my UPS guy to do cartwheels up my sidewalk. I just want him to deliver my package unbroken. Keep it simple.

I've always been puzzled when people rave about your speeches. I've seen you speak in person several times: your break-out speech at the 2004 DNC Convention in Boston, your acceptance of the Democratic Party's nomination in Denver in 2008, and your inauguration speech in subfreezing temperatures in Washington, D.C. I was proud of my country, and I was thrilled to be witnessing history, but the words evaporated faster than my breath did as I stood on the chilly D.C. mall amidst the throng of your fans.

In fact, you already have a perfect model for the way forward, and that's how you handled the House Republicans in Baltimore last week at their retreat. It was the first time in your presidency that I thought to myself, "Now we're talking. This guy's a badass!"

Something had changed in your demeanor. Your protective armor was down, and it seemed you sort of decided to say, "To hell with it, I'm going to engage." You were funny and respectful, totally in command, and you delivered cutting lines like "a lot of you have gone to appear at ribbon-cuttings for the same projects that you voted against." Zing!

At one moment in the question-and-answer period, you made a point that I'm sure politicians on both sides of the aisle can agree on: "So just a tone of civility instead of slash and burn would be helpful. The problem we have sometimes is a media that responds only to slash-and-burn-style politics."

Amen. This is why you should never listen to the mainstream media. You should listen only to me.