The story among speechwriters is that President Dwight Eisenhower used to have a rhetorical rule: You should be able to write your take-away message on the inside of a matchbook cover.
Before all the statistics and stories and jokes, you have to decide what your pitch is going to be and decide how to say it in one phrase. You've got to determine the most effective way to get your listener up off the couch. How are you going to persuade people to vote for you, donate their money, volunteer their time, or buy your product? In a single phrase, what is your message?
Winston Churchill's "blood, toil, tears, and sweat," Ronald Reagan's "evil empire," Richard Nixon's "silent majority," even George H.W. Bush's "thousand points of light" are all examples of this. Sometimes the bottom line is a big idea; sometimes it's just a sound bite. Either way, it sums up the one thought you want the audience to remember.
When you look at President Obama's pitch for his new deficit reduction plan that raises $1.5 trillion in new taxes on the wealthy, you see more than one message. Early last week, he first said that this is not about "numbers on a ledger," but about "fairness." (He soon changed his mind and said that actually, this is about math, but more on that in a moment.) Next, he said this is about "everybody" paying their fair share, including millionaires and billionaires.
Reasons three, four, five, and six followed: We're putting country before party. We're doing what's right. We're protecting future generations. We're looking out for each other. Wait! Let's not forget Warren Buffett's secretary—we're doing this for her.
But as the week went on and the newscasters and headline writers distilled the president's message down to one phrase, it became: "President Obama says his proposal isn't class warfare, it's just math."
Never mind that the words the president used most to frame his arguments were words like "millionaires and billionaires," "wealthiest Americans," "fairness," and "shared burden." Judging from his frequent references to loaded words like those, no wonder the words "class warfare" kept coming to mind; he used the phrase himself three times. Clearly this is all about class warfare, and the president seemed most comfortable when he was playing to his liberal base and sticking it to the "rich," depending on how the administration defines a "millionaire." Pay no attention to the fact that when Obama talked about "everybody" paying their fair share, he forgot to mention that not "everybody" pays taxes. In fact, we're close to half of Americans not paying any federal income tax at all. And despite saying that this is just a case of simple math, he was noticeably short on numbers. There was no math.
Maybe that's why it appears this way in the official White House transcript from his Rose Garden remarks unveiling his proposal: "This is not class warfare. It's math. (Laughter.)"
Even the friendly crowd in the Rose Garden couldn't take him seriously. Were they laughing because it was a throwaway line to them, or did they see the fundamental absurdity of the argument, as the rest of us do?
What the president neglected to mention is that one reason Warren Buffett et al pay lower tax rates than some middle class taxpayers is because much of their income is derived from investments, which are taxed at a lower rate than regular income. No one is advocating raising the tax rates on capital gains, dividends, and other investments to fix this. Upping those rates would have a devastating effect on new investment and capital markets.
So the president's solution is a surtax on the wealthy. And if he truly believes this is a good course of action for our nation, he should have proposed it not in loaded terms that sow envy and divide Americans but in terms of a growth agenda that will bring opportunity and prosperity roaring back for all Americans. He could have spoken about unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit that is America, about how Americans have a can-do attitude when times are tough that refuse to keep them down, and about the promise of the next American century.