Speakers at the recent Democratic National Convention, including Bill Clinton, more or less acknowledged that President Obama muffed the opportunities offered to a new president in the first six months of his term. He blew the mandate given him in the election of 2008. The message of his campaign--the promise of change--quickly disappeared behind typical Washington rhetoric and party politics. So why not plan for a fresh start if re-elected and finally do some bold things? Indeed, something audacious?
It would be useful to begin a new term with a firm critique of the first four years. What went wrong? Why was the president defeated at the mid-term elections in 2010?
For one thing, President Obama surrounded himself with people from Wall Street, notably from Goldman Sachs. Deliberately set aside during his first term were the kind of New Deal programs instituted in the 1930's to meet the challenge of the Great Depression. Behind it all was a cautious attitude that reminds me of President Herbert Hoover's pronouncements in 1931 that "the sole function of government is to bring about a condition of affairs favorable to the beneficial development of private enterprise."
Obama and FDR started their presidencies with similar approval ratings, but while FDR was able to maintain his going into his second term, Obama's has plummeted. A key reason might be Franklin Roosevelt's willingness to identify the institutions responsible for the Great Depression in which so many Americans were hurt--with foreclosures on homes, life savings lost at their bank, and unemployment at 30-35 percent.
"Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion," FDR intoned when first inaugurated in 1933. President Hoover, who during his term supported big business interests over those of average citizens, was not spared. Although Wall Street was bailed out, they also got it in the neck. In response, the public applauded.
Today, huge pockets of the population are still victims of the 2008 financial recession--just as they were when Obama took office in January of 2009--and are frustrated by his failure to penalize those responsible for their economic woes.
It is essential to see the political value of directing hostility to where it should rightfully be placed. (And Obama shouldn't lose sleep over votes lost from the business or financial elite.) FDR told Americans the plain truth at the DNC in 1936: "Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise."
In my opinion, President Obama would sail into the White House for another term if his courage were really aroused by a strong empathy with these Americans still hurting.
A second thing that went awry was President Obama's confidence in bipartisanship. Naïve, if I may say so. His enemies have made it plain--ever since his inauguration--that their sole objective is to GET OBAMA. How can there be bipartisanship when the Republican's "policy proposals" are hyped distortions, often just maneuvers aimed at discrediting the White House?
President Obama also needs to move past the large statements that plagued his first campaign and term, those that sound innovative, but really aren't. One prime example can be pulled from his DNC speech just last week: "But know this, America: Our problems can be solved. Our challenges can be met. The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place, and I'm asking you to choose that future." Of course delegates at the DNC cheered, but there is nothing bold there.
But the primary reason Roosevelt's approval rating remained high was because of his natural empathy. People felt his concern, and they responded to it by voting for him. Empathy is fostered by the heart. It fed FDR's instincts, the ones that guided him in honing the much-touted New Deal programs. (More thoughtful expressions of concern are usually measured, and this President Obama has tried, but without making much impression upon us Americans.)
In President Obama's acceptance speech of the Democratic nomination last week, he mentioned FDR: "And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades. It will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one."
And then, of course, this was immediately followed by the disclaimer, likely inserted by cautious staff members worried about how the Republicans might distort Obama's statement: "And by the way, those of us who carry on his party's legacy should remember that not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington."
Led by his staff I presume, Obama has previously avoided any comparison with FDR and the New Deal and by doing so missed seeing what really made Roosevelt's presidency popular. The era of the New Deal was not just a series of innovative legislation. It was a consistent attitude conveyed by President Roosevelt himself and also by many of his cabinet members--Perkins, Ickes, and Hopkins. In today's world of mass communication, you may think, as Obama's staff apparently does, that you can analytically formulate an attitude. But, you can't. What you come up with is ersatz, artificial special effects. Inevitably, it's not the real thing--and we sense it.
Instead of harking back to FDR, President Obama should read modern proposals from Bob Herbert, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich and others on how to move the country forward. Of particular interest is Herbert's suggestion of new, 21st century Works Progress Administration and Public Works Administration programs. The Republicans will scream; the voters will applaud.
Finally, President Obama needs to follow his instincts. He should stop thinking so much and allow himself to demonstrate a strong attitude toward alleviating the pain of his citizens. Reflecting an empathetic attitude can't emerge as hype, a hatched public relations exercise. Everyone will see through it.