Maslansky: Obama’s Speech And The Emerging “Responsibility” Divide

Obama won the hearts of his base but Republicans remain skeptical.

Tuesday night, my firm, Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research conducted an Instant Response session with 29 voters from the suburban Virginia area. Just over half voted for Obama while the rest voted for McCain. In other respects, the group reflected the area’s population, with a mix of ages, occupations and incomes. All were highly news-engaged people meaning that they each said they pay close attention to national and international news.

Strong partisan divides. The view from this group was not quite as gushy about the speech as most of the cable networks would suggest. While Americans continue to root for the President to succeed, the first few weeks of the Obama Administration have done little to erase the partisan skepticism so prevalent of the past eight years. What we witnessed was a group of people polarized by Obama’s message even while they ended up giving him reasonably high marks for his performance overall. In fact, we saw huge partisan divides in nearly every area of Obama’s speech.

A new divide is forming. As significant as the partisan divide, we also saw a new philosophical split emerging: the responsible vs. the irresponsible. Many participants – Democrats and Republicans alike – believe that the stimulus package and the housing bill are doing too much to reward the bad behavior of others. They resent neighbors who never should have purchased homes they couldn’t afford and they are angry that they will now be forced to carry the burden for what they see as reckless behavior. They reject Obama’s recent policy victories as the wrong approach to solving the financial crisis and want to ensure that they will not be asked to sacrifice more to support others.

With that said, here is a rundown of what worked for both parties and what didn’t work for Republicans in Obama’s speech. Also included are some of the clips from the groups.


  • Hope and optimism. Before the speech, most of our participants from both parties said that Obama’s “gloom and doom” over the past few weeks had not served him well. They said they wanted Obama to return to the tone of his campaign. And according to them, he did so. Though his rhetoric around hope and optimism did not test as strongly in this context as it did during much of the campaign, our group overwhelmingly agreed that he has successfully communicated a more optimistic view of American’s future.
  • People and Personal responsibility. For all of the large reform proposals outlined in Obama’s speech, the messages that resonated most were not about government at all. They were about people and personal responsibility. Talk about “the hardest-working people on Earth” or the parent who must take responsibility for her children or the “men and women in uniform” received uniformly positive responses. For Republicans and Democrats, there is agreement that now is a time for greater personal responsibility. And for a former community organizer it is ironic that the messages that did best were those that spoke of giving Americans the power to achieve a better future.
  • Sacrifice: There was only one line in the speech that used the word, but it was a powerful one. It resonated with people on both sides of the aisle because they recognize that there are not endless resources and that trade-offs must be made. They expect their elected officials to lead the way.
  • Accountability. There is no shortage of anger among the American people at the people and institutions that got us into our current financial crisis. And Obama was effective at tapping into this anger and desire for accountability. Nowhere was this more true that when he demanded accountability from CEOs. In the highest-scoring line of the night, according to our group, Obama declared: “This time, CEOs won’t be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over.”
  • Cuts in government spending. Though certainly not the first time a President has stood up and talked about cutting wasteful Washington spending, Obama was very successful in conveying a sense that this time, it will be different. By giving a dollar figure – two trillion dollars – and by talking about specific cuts (“end education programs that don’t work and end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don’t need them.”), Obama turned even the Republicans into believers.


  • Dems generally loved the speech, so there isn't much that didn’t work for them. But here are the areas where he lost Republicans the most.
  • Looking backwards. For Republicans and the “responsibles”, Obama already has a record he needs to move away from. They don’t want to hear about the stimulus package because they don’t agree it was a good idea. For much of the front section of the speech, these people “dialed down” Obama’s sales pitch for his accomplishments so far.
  • Petty partisanship. For many of the Republicans in our group, Obama’s speech was viewed as both partisan and political. There were dramatic negative reactions to the slights against Republicans and to perceived overstatements by Obama about his successes (“Already, we have done more to advance the cause of health care reform in the last thirty days than we have in the last decade.”).
  • Big reforms. The bigger the promise, the more likely Republicans were to respond negatively. On health care reform, on energy and on entitlements, Republicans want to know where the money is coming from and how all of these big ideas will be funded. They know it is going to come from them somehow and they just don’t like it.

The bottom line: Overall, the speech was definitely a win for Obama. Of 29 participants, 11 thought the speech exceeded expectations and just three thought it failed to meet expectations. But looking at the numbers by party, just 2 Republicans thought it exceeded expectations while three thought it failed. So it motivated the base but got about the same level of bipartisan support as the stimulus bill.


Michael Maslansky is CEO of Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research, a corporate and public affairs market research firm that specializes in language and messaging. Michael has conducted extensive research to understand how to most effectively communicate about issues, brands and products.