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Lance Simmens Headshot

A Dangling Conversation

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There is a raging debate currently underway in the progressive community over the extent to which the president either has or has not lived up to the promises delivered during the 2008 campaign and in subsequent speeches. It has left many of us wondering if in fact it was we who misread the words, values and ideals expressly outlined in the historic election of the nation's first African-American president.

There are those who rightly point out, as I have done repeatedly in this forum, that the weight of the issues awaiting his arrival was of such a magnitude that it would surely test the skills and talents of Atlas himself. There are also those who argue that the resolute and determined opposition whose avowed goal was to deny him success surely has altered the calculus upon which he has had the ability to make good on his promises.

But when you strip all the arguments of their merits, it seems to me that the lingering suspicions about this administration among progressives and independents and the legions of under- and unemployed, whose fears of both the present and the future keep them awake at night, are not grounded in whether he has done too much but rather whether he has done too little. And the depth of exasperation in the public at large places at risk a mature and responsible response to a perceived choice between the lesser of two evils, the quality of the opposition notwithstanding.

There is a current estrangement between the people and their elected leaders that is reflected in poll after poll. Paul Simon, the musician, captured the sentiment in the verses of "The Dangling Conversation," describing the lost communication between two people during a late afternoon non-conversation as follows: "Like a poem poorly written, we are verses out of rhythm, couplets our of rhyme, in syncopated time." This is the current state that passes for dialogue in our political culture. It is important -- no, imperative -- that a strength borne of conviction, vision and wisdom emerge from the ash heap of recrimination and political calculation. Otherwise, the wrath of an angry populace may exact a high price indeed on the course we ultimately chart for those who will be left to pick up the pieces of our dysfunction.

I, for one, was drawn to Barack Obama early on because he spoke boldly of the need to tackle the myriad problems both inherited and imminent, and because he appealed to the very unique aspect of American exceptionalism that makes us feel that we indeed can tackle any problem or set of problems if we just roll up our sleeves get to work. I have found myself recently questioning whether or not we progressive supporters injected too many of our own values on an individual whose centrism was neither masked nor hidden from us along the way. So I returned to the speech Obama gave on that cold day in Washington, D.C. upon his inauguration two and a half years ago to see if I had, in my exuberance, only heard what I wanted to hear.

To both my relief and dismay, I have concluded that no, we did not mistakenly paint the president with our own brush; what was said that day would be as acceptable today as it was then. To wit:

The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift ... We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We'll restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. ... Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.

No, we did not misread Obama; we supported such pronunciations of boldness and bigness. A substantial majority of voting Americans evidently also supported the idea that what was needed was a massive overhaul of a system that had for too long suffered from deferred maintenance. This was the promise, and the American people were ready for it. The politicians were not, but with brash leadership they would discover the wrath of the people if they stood in the way. What happened?

The administration somehow underestimated the power of its own pronouncements. The half-a-loaf mentality of Congress, combined with the we-can-be-as-stupid-as-we-want-to-be mentality of the loyal opposition, extracted concessions that belied the boldness and bigness of the hope and change the American people clearly embraced. The vacuum created by timidity and disappointment gave rise to a successful hijacking of the opposition by Tea Party populists, who apparently wish to return to a time that never existed. And today we find ourselves in a state of paralysis, most clearly playing out through the debt-limit debacle. The cumulative impact of half-measures and ideological nuance portends profound consequences in both the short and long term, politically and substantively.

So, where to do we go from here? Mr. President, on behalf of those who were energized to knock on doors for you, those who reveled in your optimism that we could tackle big and complex problems, those who still believe in you and your sense of empathy, equality, fairness and compassion, those who truly believe that you embody the true ideals that the Founding Fathers stood for, now is not the time for appeasement but rather the time to reinvigorate the American people behind a leadership that clearly defines right from wrong, a leadership style that fulfills the words you spoke on that cold day in January: "In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less."

We diminish our greatness when we settle for less; it is not the American way, and there will be a price to be paid for doing such, maybe not in the immediate short term, but certainly in the long term. We have already settled for far too little. The stimulus was not too large, health care reform was not too revolutionary, financial reform was not too tough, our energy strategy is not too expansive, the housing market is not too robust, and the middle class is not growing.

We still believe in you and want you to succeed, but more importantly, we want a better life for our children, and in their honor we will not allow ourselves to settle for less. You had it right all along; stick to your guns -- metaphorically speaking, of course -- and don't worry about being too strong. People just want to be treated fairly, and right now they see a system that rewards unfairness. This must change, and you must change it. That is the change that people hope for.