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David Bromwich Headshot

The President and the Vigilantes

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Probably the speeches President Obama has scheduled next week will come off as planned. On Tuesday, he is set to address schoolchildren on TV in the nation's classrooms. Some parents, dreading a subliminal message, will refuse to send their children to school. On Wednesday he will address Congress. Some lawmakers, availing themselves of the child's prerogative, will likewise stay at home.

Obama will tell the children to study hard. He seems to have decided, after many hesitations, to signal to Congress that a public option for health insurance is desirable but not imperative; that he will accept an arrangement that "triggers" such an option in the event that no affordable cooperative plan emerges from the insurers. He will say these things and then we shall see.

This was the summer when a popular president lost much of his popularity. Yet he lost it without the intervention of a catastrophe for which he is blamed. How did that happen? He acted on a resolution -- a rather arbitrary and personal resolution -- to accomplish a lot of big things at once. With the largest of his projects, he lightened the heavy hand of his own resolve by disclaiming authorship and inviting multiple co-authors to share the credit. He wanted something new and something comprehensive: that was all he would say in June. It scared people more than the idea of a clear-cut plan urged by a single leader.

The town-hall dustups were predictable. Anyone who listens to Fox Radio knew this was coming by early July. Considering what was said on the air, where many sentences by Fox Radio hosts begin "The America we grew up with is being taken away from us," and many close by saying things like "unless somebody stops this guy" -- considering the depth of the fears and provocations, it is amazing that there have not been major arrests. From early May onward, much of the right-wing chatter was sailing close to the wind of incitement-to-riot. The fears about the school speech are the latest symptom of a wildness that has been coming.

"The thing that concerned me most about it," a New York Times story quoted a Texas parent saying, "was it seemed like a direct channel from the president of the United States into the classroom, to my child." The same story quoted a wary talk-show hostess in Kansas City: "I wouldn't let my next-door neighbor talk to my kid alone; I'm sure as hell not letting Barack Obama talk to him alone." Good fences make good neighbors was the warning of a country churl in a famous American poem, but the talk-show personage went a good deal beyond that. For her, all neighbors are bad, and Obama is the worst kind of neighbor, one who lives far away so you can't keep an eye on him.

And, of course, he is a stranger. Limbaugh and the rest have been saying it for many months; they said it long before he was elected. Obama is not one of us. We don't know where he was born. His early life -- the subject of two autobiographies, a dozen biographies -- is obscure and disturbing. This line of talk was getting louder all through spring and early summer but nobody near the White House seemed to notice. What could go wrong? They were hanging close to the arbiter of the status quo, Lawrence Summers; they had invited the Republicans to join the big plan; the mainstream media were on board and meanwhile they had committed themselves to nothing in particular. What could go wrong?

Some of the callers are cross-over voters who once gave Obama the benefit of the doubt but now distrust him. Some have lost their houses, some have lost their jobs. While this administration sought to perform its prodigious work for people without any resources -- bargaining with the richest about how to assist the poorest -- it missed a step between. In the sinking middle of the country were the people most anxious about their money, because they didn't have enough of it and they seemed to be losing what they had. The poor will take what Obama can give; the rich surely trust a man who promises not to take much away from the big insurers and the pharmaceuticals. But in the middle are the old who like their Medicare, and fear the loss of benefits to cover the cost of new plans for others; and in the middle, too, are the already insured. What the already insured have to gain from a new plan, as Senator Ben Nelson rightly said when interviewed by John King on CNN, has never been well explained.

The president's advisers underestimated both the suspiciousness and the heterogeneity of the American public. Maybe their own feeling of being the best, wadded by rings of the best, along with the president's own selflessness regarding the credit for his plan deceived them into supposing health care could be delivered from Congress to the president to the people without minute supervision. It was a complex routine admittedly -- wheels-within-wheels -- but nothing (they thought) that required looking and listening outside the precincts of the powerful.

Demographically, the plan has failed to take with the old and with people of modest means who have insurance. Ideologically it is vulnerable at the point where common sense agrees with a strong defensive libertarianism. The idea of increasing the budget and enlarging the responsibilities of the federal government at just this moment doesn't mix easily with the memory of the enormous subsidy from taxes given to rescue the banks and the too-big-to-fail brokerage houses.

Between Obama's Cairo speech in early June and his town-hall meetings in August, more than a sense of initiative was lost. It seemed that the White House had confined itself to a decorous standing-in-attendance; as if the conduct of the presidency had become a matter of waiting for Congress and the people to download and revise at pleasure a very large attachment. The president's timing of his entrances and exits has been bewildering. In his first half year in office, he gave 100 personal interviews to mainstream media outlets. Yet there has never been a major speech on the economy, and, until Wednesday, no single speech on health care. Obama loses something too, besides the conveyed impression of warmth, by wanting to appear above the battle. Is he too good for fights he himself has brought on?

In his Keynote Speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, Barack Obama said that we couldn't be divided into blue states and red states. We were all Americans together. Well, it is true, and it is half-true. Obama's aspiration was to teach us again to be Americans together. But a politician less wishful and less keen on the sound of sentiments would not have chosen a moment when his approval had sunk from 58% to 42% to address the nation's schoolchildren. The idea of such a speech, like the recent town-hall appearances, spills over the brim of the usual push for popularity. The town-hall performances were a reminder that Obama sometimes lacks economy of speech; the progress of the summer has been a reminder that he often lacks economy of gesture. This flaw is occasional, not predominant, and it is concealed by his personal grace and the evident fact that Obama thinks. Bill Clinton had a different balance of vices and virtues, but in the curious failure to reckon the actual scale of vast undertakings, which must be done wholeheartedly if they are done at all, there is an unhappy resemblance between them.

The advice (whoever gave it) to commit this administration early to as many big projects as it could try was badly misjudged. They should have calmed fears and gone at the economy intelligibly, piece by piece. Scrub the pork from the stimulus. Create as many new jobs as possible. Identify the bad assets and let the money changers who fell hard for complex derivatives, fall down. Offer limited but adequate relief to the gullible and penniless who live in the houses backed by the mortgages. But not pay wealthy purchasers to buy up the same bad assets, out of taxpayer money, and watch as Wall Street creeps up and call that the nation's reward. Unemployment, now, is rising toward ten percent. It is bizarre that Wall Street appreciates Obama while the people kicked out of jobs call in to Limbaugh.

Any program launched by the White House should have been amenable to clear explanation. Nothing could have been more important. But the pattern has been almost the reverse. They say: we are about to do something large, and we assure you it will be something good, but we don't know what it will be.

Vigilantes, by definition, are an informal and self-deputized crowd of the people. They are always potentially violent. In the eyes of the law, they are outlaws. In their own eyes they are enforcers of a social contract that has been abandoned by the makers and enforcers of the actual laws. The angry crowd of the righteous and cheated at home, their coaches on the talk shows, and their enablers in the Republican Party, are poised on the brink of casting themselves in the role of vigilantes. The more savage manifestations at the town halls, and elsewhere, intimate the possibility of a breakdown far worse.

It was a complacent White House that allowed things to get this far. But the president and the men and women who surround him are (to an imposing degree) gentle and reasonable persons, of abstract mind and unharried imaginations. By training and conviction they are technocrats. Nothing prepared them for this. It is doubtful that David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett between them have spent three hours in the last three months listening to what the president's enemies have been saying aloud in the influential substitute media over which the White House can exert no control. Even so minimal an exposure would have clarified for them the meaning, for example, of recent provocative statements by Dick Cheney, James Inhofe, and others who deny the legitimacy of the president. Cheney has recently said that the president's conduct is an active danger to the security of the country. Inhofe has said that he does not know whether the country can survive the 16 months between now and the seating of a Republican Congress after the mid-term elections.

These politicians are giving permission to the vigilantes--reassuring them that they really are the people, the only ones who count as the people, and that their apocalyptic feelings are justified. According to Cheney and Inhofe and those lower down the ladder who channel their message, Obama is an aberration, not one of us: a man without a right to govern the United States.

Does the president yet recognize that his domestic enemies are implacable? They cannot be bargained with. They must be fought with words as well as laws. And the rest of the American people must be -- indeed deserve to be -- reasoned with; given a clear explanation of the path of policy, whether the economy or health care is in question; and not merely assured that the establishment is with the president. If a clear explanation cannot be given, that is a sign of something wrong with the policy.

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