Words have power; they create images and possibilities, and provide a window into the future of what could be. The best leaders use positive words to communicate a potential future for a country that is possible if actions are taken. They inspire action, progress and positive results. For words to matter, there must be a solid foundation underlying them. They cannot be all fluff and flutter.
President Ronald Reagan clearly communicated when he spoke 25 years ago this coming week in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate. "General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization," Reagan challenged, "come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
This same speech noted that there was "one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds. ... Freedom is the victor."
Slightly more than two years later, the wall was torn down. Words made it seem possible; words had fostered ideas, led to action and caused the wall to tumble down.
His challenge to tear down the wall was built on the foundational understanding that freedom and liberty lead to prosperity. That government could not produce the output of freedom.
Words without a solid foundation are simply a veneer.
President Barack Obama used the tagline "Hope and Change" during the 2008 election. The campaign's promise of a better future led many Americans to vote for him without understanding how the slogan would lead to action and what the outcome might be.
Now that we are living in the future intended by Obama to have been shaped by his message of "Hope and Change," we can see what it has accomplished: Obama has a tough record to defend. Federal government debt has increased under his watch from $10.6 trillion at the time of his inauguration to $15.7 trillion today.
Unemployment remains high. Some 14.7 percent of those Americans who would like to work are either unemployed or underemployed, based on June 1, Bureau of Labor Statistics data. These economic indicators do not provide a solid foundation for a conventional incumbent campaign, which would promote the president's record and accomplishments.
In May, the Obama campaign rolled out a 7-minute video with the theme "Forward."
Given Obama's record as president, it is easy to figure out why his campaign would like to focus on the future. His record is hard for anyone to defend.
When Reagan ran as an incumbent, his campaign ran a commercial titled "Morning in America." It highlighted that after three years of Reagan's leadership, our country was "prouder and stronger and better."
It worked because the voters knew that it was true in their own lives.
Their lives were stronger and better.
While Obama runs on a "Forward" campaign, American voters are going to be asking questions: Am I better off than I was three years ago? Do I have confidence in this president? If he is re-elected, do I believe that in four years I will be better off?
This year's Republican presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney is running with the current tagline "Restore American's Greatness." While looking backward to a great past might provide a rallying point for core conservatives, the focus on the past rather than looking forward to a brighter future might leave many in the political middle uninspired.
Romney's campaign might want to refocus the campaign on two fronts. The first, on a clear and repetitive description of the Obama administration record (to be done by everyone but Romney); the second, on a clear vision of a positive future that will inspire people to not only vote, but to work for the Romney campaign.
The clearer, more simple and more direct the vision, the faster people will connect and embrace it.
Reagan was effective because his words reflected who he was. His foundation had been formed over a long period of time, and he focused not on changing his core belief system, but on communicating his vision for a brighter future to those around him.
Comfortable in his own skin, he provided the calm reassurance that America is great, that the people are resilient and that we simply had to have as much faith in ourselves as he did.
Like Reagan, we must have the courage to speak out against evil, and use our words to support and encourage freedom and liberty.