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Jesse Kornbluth Headshot

An Open Letter to Michelle Obama: 'The President Will Listen to You'

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Dear Mrs. Obama,

It seems as if everyone who cares about your husband is talking at him.

It doesn't seem as if he hears any of us.

But everything we know about your relationship suggests that he does listen to you.

So, with a sense of distress bordering on urgency, I'm using this public forum to urge you to pass on as much of this as you agree with.

My concern: For two years now, we have watched President Obama reach across the aisle, only to have his hand slapped away.

And yet he seems intent on continuing an approach that has damaged his administration and now has him cast, in the eyes of many, as weak, risk-averse and unworthy of respect.

Mrs. Obama, your husband has a better chance of killing Osama bin Laden than he does of forging a working partnership with John Boehner.

I know you've been busy with motherhood and your own projects, but even if you lived under a rock, you'd know this: You can't collaborate with people whose goal is to make you a one-term president. And it's not like it's a secret that the Republicans plan to destroy your husband's presidency -- when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked about the Republican agenda after the midterm elections, he said, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." If that means blocking every bit of legislation proposed by the president or even shutting down the government, they'll do it.

But that's just the surface opposition. What's just as troubling are the Republicans' minions on the extreme right. Their aim, from the beginning, has been to de-legitimize the president. Secret Muslim, not born here, Socialist -- you've watched your husband endure this onslaught. Sometimes he makes a joke of it. Which is smart, because to see these accusations clearly is to see the racism bubbling just under the surface.

Over in my America -- progressive, white, educated, not yet unemployed -- we are all but begging for the president to show some anger. I'm sure the election results did more than dismay and annoy him. But to watch him at that post-election press conference, you'd have thought the problem was an inferior crumpet served with his tea.

"No drama Obama" was fine for a while. But that, we were told, was merely how he managed the bumps and ruts of the campaign. At the podium, he was all about "Fired up! Ready to go!" And we were. We dug deeper in our pockets, made more phone calls, bought enough t-shirts to keep our kids in nightshirts for the rest of our lives, and we took that campaign out for quite a spin, didn't we? It felt great. I miss that. We all do.

And now, on the blogs I read and in dinner conversations, there's a sense that we were hoodwinked. We think your husband negotiates with himself and then presents diluted proposals to Republicans so they can be further watered down -- all in the name of doing things differently in Washington. Yes, we've got an historic health-care bill, but it's one that the insurance companies actually like. Sure, the president has talked tough about Wall Street, but he not only doesn't seem to want a single high-level banker to be indicted, he's willing to sit on the sidelines as corrupt banks evict homeowners whose houses have been illegally repossessed.

Why spare you the rest of the disappointments? Your husband was going to call a halt to our ruinous Mideast wars, but now it looks like the conflict in Afghanistan will end -- regardless of what the president has decided --- when General Petraeus says it does. As a candidate, your husband was clear about gays in the military; as president, his position on Don't Ask Don't Tell is "evolving." His administration's record on constitutional issues would delight Bush and Cheney and get a failing grade from sometime constitutional law professor named Obama. I have no idea where the president really stands on tax cuts for the rich. And, most baffling of all, he is willing to link the invented-by-Republicans deficit "crisis" to the even less relevant Social Security "crisis" instead of grappling with a real crisis -- unemployment.

(This isn't why I'm writing to you, but I do want to point out that disrespect flows in all directions these days. The Republicans and the Tea Party people disrespect the president, for sure. But also, the president disrespects a large section of the people who got him his job. Which, I guess, is understandable. What are we gonna do -- campaign for Mitt Romney?)

Philip Slater, the great sociologist, noted that "the first cure for illusion is despair." I'm sure I'm not the only one of your husband's admirers who's been there. But despair gets old fast. You look for something you can do to get the blood pumping, so you're not just the target of other people's dark plans -- and then you feel the surge of energy that's the direct product of a righteous anger. Take America back? You betcha. Where do we start?

Well, just for old time's sake, why not start with a president who's a leader. Who's got a vision that doesn't have a sell-by date of 2012. Who doesn't kid himself that today's enemies can be tomorrow's friends. Who isn't afraid to show his feelings. Who's strong enough to ask for help.

A few years ago, when I first started paying attention to your husband, I thought of him in the words George Orwell used to describe Charles Dickens -- not the actual Dickens, but the essential man, the man beneath the skin. Orwell wrote:

I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry -- in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.

Is that a plausible description of your husband? I don't know anymore. But you do. And if anyone has the key to inspiring him, you're the one.

My bet's on you.

Cordially,

Jesse Kornbluth