One of the great character strengths of Barack Obama, and one of his greatest strengths as a leader, is his ability to treat people with civility and respect and to try to inspire others to do the same. We saw that in his speech on race in Philadelphia, in his restraint throughout the campaign on personal attacks against John McCain, and again more recently in his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo.
But our strengths and our weaknesses tend to flow from the same wells. In a paradoxical sense, as daunting as the problems the President has inherited, his greatest stroke of luck as a candidate and now as President was that the prior administration had so thoroughly destroyed our economy, our strength and reputation around the world, and the security most voters had felt in their homes, their jobs, and their health care that they were ready for more than a reshuffling of the deck. They wanted a new set of cards, one that wasn't marked.
The American people were tired of a Republican Party that had nothing to offer but the rhetoric of their most influential leaders, Herbert Hoover and Joe McCarthy, whose ideology of unregulated corporate fraud masquerading as a free market and the politics of terror masquerading as patriotism were the twin pillars of Republican policies and politics during the Bush era. The American people were tired of theocrats telling them that Terri Shiavo was alive and well and living in the minds of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and physician-turned-mind-reader Bill Frist (who believed he could tell what "Terri" was thinking without reading her scans).
Americans were even willing to tolerate a President with a nuanced intellect (okay, one who could also hit three-pointers for the troops) after the destructive, impulsive, Manichean days of "you're-either-with us-or-against-us" and "nobody ever told me there were Sunnis and Shiites in I-rack" George W. Bush.
But a pattern has emerged that is increasingly disquieting, not only because it is politically dangerous for a president who has inherited an economy that continues to shed hundreds of thousands of jobs per month, but more importantly, because it threatens to undermine not only the agenda Americans overwhelmingly endorsed in November but a moment in history that only comes around every half-century or so, when the country is ready for genuine, paradigm-busting progressive reform.
In the first serious mistake of the new administration, the President preached the virtues of bipartisanship and got nothing in return. Instead of putting Senators like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins on notice that their constituents were watching them, he allowed two or three Senators who would have been picked off the next time the electorate had a shot at them if they voted against the President's original plan to serve as Trojan horses for the failed ideas of an impotent right-wing Republican minority that had suffered a resounding electoral defeat just months earlier. That minority promptly grew the debt with the same tax breaks they had already ballooned it with for eight years and eliminated from the President's plan over two hundred billion in spending that could have put Americans back to work rebuilding an infrastructure that had been crumbling under the ideological weight of Hoover Republicanism and McCarthyesque politics. Ever since Reagan resuscitated Hoover's economic legacy, Republicans have convinced Americans that they can have something for nothing and have scared Democrats at all levels of government into acquiescence by threatening to brand them as "tax and spend liberals" (which they have done anyway) if they told them that if you want a loaf of bread, somebody actually has to pay for it.
This was a teaching moment--and a crucial one at that. That moment has now been lost, and instead the polls are now showing Americans increasingly worried about the deficit. That, in turn, is frightening Congressional Democrats back into their defensive crouch, even as their normal predators are on the verge of extinction, with the Republican Party is at its lowest ebb in public opinion in recorded history.
All Presidents make their early mistakes, and it looked like this administration had learned its lesson after the first one. But if the events of the last several weeks are any indication, that may not be the case.
Perhaps their political calculation is correct. Maybe the economy is in such bad shape that an extraordinary orator-in-chief will be able to convince a Democratic Congress still suffering from years of Post-Election Stress Disorder to enact a series of sweeping reforms that resemble the transformative measures of FDR rather than a series of half-measures forged by unnecessary compromises that leave us only half as vulnerable as before.
But on issue after issue, the President is selling hope without audacity, leaving centrist Democrats from purple states and districts fearful of attacks from the right on everything from deficits to "socialized medicine." Why? Because of his steadfast refusal either to call out his opponents by name or to tell the story of how we got into any of the messes we're in.
In place of the earlier rhetoric of bipartisanship we now here the repeated rhetoric of "looking forward, not backward." But it's hard to fix a problem and prevent its recurrence if you refuse to investigate what happened. And it's hard to call for accountability and transparency when you refuse to hold anyone accountable for anything, whether incompetence or malfeasance.
The American people would understand why we need regulation of every past and future financial product Wall Street speculators can invent if someone would just tell them the story--and repeat it until they know it by heart--of how those bankers, speculators, and those whose job was to regulate them risked our life savings, homes, and jobs through get-rich-quick schemes, compensation plans that rewarded irresponsible risk-taking with our money, and fraud.
The American people would understand why we need to offer at least one health insurance plan not controlled by the insurance companies if someone would just tell them the story of how it came to be that our premiums have doubled as millions more Americans have lost their coverage.
The American people would understand why the government needs to invest, with or without private partners, in alternative sources of energy that you don't have to burn, if someone would just tell them the story of how Big Oil has been telling us they're for "all of the above" (a mix of fuels) when "all of the above" for them really means regular, premium, and super unleaded.
The President is offering the public a series of stories that are all missing half the plot and half the characters--namely, the part of the plot that says how we got where we are (e.g., 50 million without health insurance, half a million losing their jobs every month, 1 in 8 homes foreclosed or in danger of foreclosure, 70% of our energy coming from regimes hostile to us and gas prices on the rise again even as demand has fallen)--and the characters responsible for those gaps in the stories. He is trying to sell health care reform without calling out the drug and insurance industries, whose profits have soared at our expense. He is trying to sell financial reform without pointing his finger squarely at the banks and speculators who bankrupted us. He is trying to sell energy reform without blaming the oil companies who racked up record profits as Americans racked up record debts paying for their gas. And he is trying to sell all of these essential reforms without mentioning that there's been a party--not just nameless "naysayers"--that has been fighting every one of these reforms for decades. When the President does feel compelled on occasion to mention the people who not only put their interests above the public interest but are now funding the lobbyists and attack ads aimed at derailing his agenda, he speaks in passive voice about how "mistakes were made," or refers to unnamed "naysayers." The President's hero is Abraham Lincoln, but it is the Lincoln who penned the Gettysburg Address, not the Lincoln who ordered Union troops to fire.
Roosevelt never made the mistake of letting Americans forget for one moment that the Great Depression was Hoover's depression. And as Paul Begala noted this week on Bill Maher, Ronald Reagan, who inherited an economy in trouble and an American public that felt humiliated over our government's inability to recover our hostages from Iran, never failed to blame Jimmy Carter for every mistake he ever made as President--and then some. We remember Reagan's brilliant ad as "Morning in America," when in fact, the first line of that ad was, "It's morning again in American" (emphasis added). The ad was, indeed, inspirational in tone, but it was also relentlessly critical by contrast with the "dark night" of Carter/Mondale.
Neither Roosevelt nor Reagan ever made it personal, and nor need Obama. FDR did not, for example, attack Hoover's intellect, nor should he have. Hoover was no fool. Hoover's problem was his inflexibility and his ideology, which did not allow him to solve the grave problems his ideology had inspired--the same ideology that brought us to the precipice again 70 years later.
Now some might say that critics doubted Obama before, and that he got elected by a wide margin using precisely the same strategy he is using now. But that is revisionist history. His advisors did not want him to give that speech on race in Philadelphia--they would have preferred to act as if no one noticed his color, a pretence they maintained publicly all the way through the election and afterwards--and it was only when he broke with the politics of avoidance that he turned the corner on the bubbling issue of race and won the Democratic nomination. And while the "generic Democrat" was leading all over the country by double digits, John McCain had overtaken Obama in the polls and was holding a marginal lead in mid September, just weeks before an election that should have been long over. It was not until then-candidate Obama finally decided to mention his adversary and tell the story of why four more years of Republican rule would be devastating to the country that the wind returned to his sails and he never looked back. Consider the following paragraphs from a post I wrote here in mid September of last year:
It was Tuesday afternoon last week, and I was heading back from San Diego to the East Coast when I caught a piece of a speech on the economy by Barack Obama. I almost missed my flight because I couldn't walk away from it. My immediate response: This was a game-changer, and we ought to see a five-point shift in the polls if he keeps this up for the rest of the week.
I was wrong. The shift was bigger. He leapt from 2 points behind John McCain to 6 points ahead at one point by the end of the week. His newfound voice in fact yielded dividends. The question is whether he and his campaign will draw the right conclusions about why he earned those dividends or whether they do what they have done so many times before: drop their gloves and start getting beaten up again after having their opponent down on the canvas.
Mark Sept 16, 2008 as the date Obama may have turned the election around. What he did in that speech in Colorado was something he had only done once before, in his convention address: not just to inspire voters about himself and his vision for the future, but to make the case against John McCain. The truth, he stated with the razor sharpness of a good prosecutor making his closing statement, is that what McCain was saying in response to the extraordinary financial crisis that was unfolding "fits with the same economic philosophy that he's had for 26 years...It's the philosophy that says even common-sense regulations are unnecessary and unwise. It's a philosophy that lets Washington lobbyists shred consumer protections and distort our economy so it works for the special interests instead of working people...We've had this philosophy for eight years. We know the results. You feel it in your own lives. Jobs have disappeared, and peoples' life savings have been put at risk. Millions of families face foreclosure, and millions more have seen their home values plummet. The cost of everything from gas to groceries to health care has gone up, while the dream of a college education for our kids and a secure and dignified retirement for our seniors is slipping away. These are the struggles that Americans are facing. This is the pain that has now trickled up."
That is the story President Obama needs to tell again and again until it sticks in the minds of voters the same way Ronald Reagan made "government is the problem, not the solution" stick in the minds of voters for 30 years.
The President could get lucky. Without mentioning that the crises we face are not accidents of nature but are in fact man-made--the result of a failed ideology, a tortured morality of unregulated greed, and acts of bad faith perpetrated by bad actors--the economy could pick up, unemployment could reverse itself by this time next year, the deficits could start to decline, and comprehensive health care and energy reform could pass. In that case, he will build his majorities in Congress in 2010 and will likely become the transformative leader most of us voted for. He is a man not only of tremendous vision but of brilliant rhetorical skill, and he has clearly found his voice as President. If his team is appropriately frustrated that commentators are not giving him enough credit for the impact of his speech in Cairo on subsequent electoral events in the Arab world, they have every right to be, because it was an extraordinary speech that clearly reached the Arab street, and no one else could have given it.
But it would be as risky to depend on luck--or on one emotion, hope--as it would be to leave a large loophole in his plans for regulation of the financial industry. Hope and inspiration are very powerful tools, but so are anger and moral indignation, and the American people have every right to feel both.
No one should have been allowed to play with our financial futures the way the banking industry did. No one should have been allowed to amass fortunes in the oil industry or in oil speculation as everyday Americans were loading themselves down with credit card debt to pay four dollars a gallon for gas. No one should have lost a job or a home because someone wanted to turn a quick buck and didn't give a damn what the impact might be on millions of families, shareholders, or pensioners. No industry should have been incentivized to increase its profits every time it denied insurance to someone with a "pre-existing condition" or stamped "denied" on a legitimate medical claim.
Those are stories the American people need to hear. Those are stories conservative Democrats need to hear echoed from their constituents if they are going to do what's right by them.
As the President is fond of quoting Martin Luther King, the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.
Mr. President, now is the time to make it bend. Dr. King didn't seek conflict, but he never avoided it. It's time to follow his example.
Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."
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