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Obama, the Middle Class and Pundit Myopia

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Just as much as conservative, right wing Americans, lefty pundits cluster like moths around false but glistering untruths about President Obama. One such untruth that has had some currency among liberals this summer is that "Obama is out of touch with the middle class." This misperception is particularly confounding because Barack Obama, at least as far back as his fierce fight with Hillary Clinton over Ohio primary voters in the late winter/early spring of 2008, has been speaking about what we now call "Main Street" issues to and with citizens of all stripes: homemakers, farmers, fishermen, workers with good jobs and those laid-off, retirees, soldiers and veterans, students, employees of businesses large and small from the lowliest counter clerk to the CFO. He has been speaking with middle class Americans about jobs, health care, education, tech investment and financial reform almost every single week for two-and-a-half years.

Barack Obama, his administration and Congress have passed legislation that will bring big change for health care, some change for the banking and financial investment industry, and small but significant change for student loans. The Recovery Act has given money to the states to save the jobs of teachers and police. Stiff competition among states for federal education dollars shows the initial success of Race to the Top, which likely is just the beginning of what the President and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan have in mind, if they can find the money, for a second term. On illegal immigration, whether or not Congress ever takes up the issue, the Obama administration has already moved to beef up border security and to target businesses that hire illegal workers. The administration is funneling money into science, for projects ranging from biotech to space exploration. The Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit has been so popular that it was oversubscribed 3-to-1. Here in the realm of hands-on innovation, rather than in the labyrinths of legislation, our clean energy future has already begun.

Of course, many of these beginnings, which President Obama has likened to planting seeds, will not see fruition until long past Obama's presidency, even if he serves a second term. Therefore, it's not surprising that some middle class Americans think that Obama is not doing enough even as others fear a future so shaped by government. It's not surprising that small businesses are none too happy with the President; they are for now paralyzed, not moving to hire or to invest, understandably, since they don't know going forward what the rules, not yet written, on health care and financial regulation will be. None of this uncertainty and animus is surprising.

What is surprising, however, is that the mainstream media has not grabbed hold of the larger picture, connected the dots among elements and tried to figure out where the lines of connection might lead. It is the sort of fascinating and complex story that should interest pundits particularly, since they usually don't have to work on the tight deadlines of the White House press corps. Instead liberal publications of late have tempted readers with come-on headlines, cooked-up conflict and premature, if deliciously wildly dramatic and provocative, conclusions.

Here at The Huffington Post last week we had Arianna Huffington's "Memo to America's Middle Class: Obama Is Just Not That Into You." Actually, Arianna Huffington is not talking about the middle class; she is speaking of progressives: "Progressives, for your own good, it's my duty to point something out to you: the president's just not that into you." The title is further misleading because not all progressives are middle class (they include mega-wealthy George Soros and the blue-collar worker who pickets for SEIU), just as all middle class folks are not progressives. Over at The New Republic, John B. Judis proffered "The Unnecessary Fall of Barack Obama," a come-on that proved so irresistible that he followed up with "Obama Really Is in Trouble -- and so Is the Country."

No question the country's got trouble. But can a president who dragged many of his fellow citizens kicking and screaming and muling and puking into health care reform, accompanied most of the way by legislators and pundits who doubted he could do it, fairly be said, as Arianna Huffington does, to be a man who "just doesn't have the fire in the belly that many activists thought he had?" Can a leader, who after enacting sweeping reform that the public has yet to embrace nevertheless who still has a 48% approval rating (not unusual at this point in a presidency), be said to have "fallen?" Isn't this conclusion a bit -- premature? Stepping into his argument, John Judis falls prey to one of the commonest traps for otherwise intelligent coastal elites: expounding on something of which he has little or no experience. "He [Obama] has failed to convey to the greater public that he is fighting for them," Judis writes. Has this pundit ever met the greater public? Seemingly not, for he goes on to pronounce that Obama "pretty much dropped the jobs issue" [in 2009] and "didn't just fail to develop a consistent narrative about the economy; he didn't really try."

The facts belie both Arianna Huffington and John Judis. Initially, I planned to present here a detailed timeline of quotes from the President's meetings with "the greater public," in the context of everything else happening at the same time, for the first eight months of 2010. But Obama is such an active president, with so many plans going forward dependent on and interdependent with other projects, that such a presentation would have been uber-tedious. Aiming for mere tediousness, I chose at random the month of April, opening its folder of clippings and speeches, itineraries and press pool reports, not quite remembering what I would find.

On Wednesday, April 28, 2010, the "White House to Main Street Tour," the middle part of the tour according to Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton, brought President Obama to Macon, Missouri and Quincy, Illinois. With a special thanks to the pooler for that day, Helene Cooper of the New York Times, let's jump right into the life of the leader "not into the middle class."

Unannounced stop numero uno:

Potus just stopped at Peggy Sue's Cafe in Monroe City, Missouri. Its a gorgeous spring day and there are lots of folks out here on North Main Street.

"How's everybody doing today?" Potus asked after walking into Peggy Sue's. There were about 10 diners seated at two tables there when he arrived.

A totally unfazed waitress, who said her name was Jodie, handed him a menu.
Potus: "I don't think you just have cheeseburgers?"
Jodie: "Yes we do."
Potus ordered a cheeseburger and fries to go, with lettuce, tomato and mustard.

Potus: "let me get that to take out."

Potus sat at a table and asked some diners about themselves. Pool couldn't hear the conversation.

A reporter asked Jodie what's it like taking the president's order.

Jodie: "I take orders every day. He ordered like a normal person."

Pool was ushered out after five minutes. Bill Burton reports that after the pool left, Potus discussed biofuels and health insurance, education and farming with the diners, and that Secretary Vilsack pulled chairs over and the other diners joined the group at the table. Afterwards Potus took photos with the group and paid for everybody's lunch, Mr. Burton said.

After leaving Peggy Sue's, Potus, no jacket, white shirt, walked across the
street, stopping at LaRue Insurance Agency where he got into an extensive
conversation with workers in the doorway. Pool couldn't hear, but Potus looked animated. Mr. Burton says that convo was about health insurance and pre-existing conditions.

Then he worked a rope line of about 100 people next door in front of City Hall,and posed for a photo with the ubuiquitous babies, who seemed as unfazed as Jodie. Their parents, though, appeared super excited. A lot of groaning from townsfolk on the rope line when Potus moved away from the line and back to his motorcade.

At 11:50 we are rolling again.

Several hours later, after speaking with workers at POET Biorefining in Macon, POTUS made another unannounced stop.

Potus just stopped at the family farm belonging to Lowell Schachtsiek, around eight miles outside of Palmyra, Missouri. The family farms pigs, cattle and corn on 1000 acres here.

Potus was greeted at the farm by a three-legged dog named Sprinkles.
Potus and Mr. Schachtsiek toured about the farm by foot for a few minutes,
peering into bags of feed and talking about oil prices, wheat, cattle, and the bible.

Mr. Schachtsiek said something your pooler couldn't catch about a tree on his
property that had some connection to the bible. Potus replied that "its a good thing you're reading the scriptures."

Then the two went into the house, where they were joined around the kitchen
table by the whole Schachtsiek family, including Mr. Schachtsiek's son who also works on the farm. There followed a discussion about the benefits of the new healthcare legislation for farmers (with Potus doing most of the talking there.)

Pool was ushered out after 5 minutes.

Next stop: Quincy! Unless there's another unannounced stop!

From there Obama did go on to Quincy, where he had helped fill sandbags during the flood of 2008, and gave a speech on the need for Wall Street reform. With a pinch of hyperbole, Obama said that the bill would include "the strongest consumer financial protections in history." The previous day, at the same time the Fiscal Commission was holding its first meeting in D.C. ("everything must be on the table," as Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson called the chopping block), Obama, on the first leg of this latest tour, had spoken at Siemens Energy in Fort Madison, Iowa, stopped in Mount Pleasant and held a town hall meeting in Ottumwa before spending the night in Des Moines at a Hampton Inn (not in the top tier of local hotels). Somewhere along the way he found the time aboard Baby Air Force One to talk with Chancellor Merkel of Germany about the financial meltdown in Greece and sanctions against Iran.

Not long ago I heard former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, at a gathering in which (Berkeley) Californians were discussing the Obama presidency, temper some of the criticism in the context of his experience in the West Wing. "Being the president," Reich said, "is like standing in front of an open fire hose. Every day there's this torrent of information coming at you -- and it keeps coming and coming." Scrolling through the April 2010 folder for the Obama presidency provides, through a recounting of the public side of the Obama presidency, a glimpse of the torrent.

April 1. Obama talked small business tax credits in Portland, ME, appeared at two Boston fundraisers and called President Hu of China in preparation for the Nuclear Security Summit. April 2. In Charlotte, NC, talking jobs and the economy at the Celgard battery plant. April 5. Easter Egg Roll Monday at the White House. An explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in WVA kills 29 men. April 6. Easter Prayer Breakfast with, among other clergy, three mega-church pastors: Bill Hybels, Joel Osteen and Kirbyjon Caldwell (who gave the prayer at George W. Bush's Inauguration). Obama asked his guests to pray for the souls of the victims. April 7-8. In Prague to sign the new START Treaty. Conferred with Medvedev about sanctions on Iran and the unrest in Kyrgyzstan. April 9. Arriving home from Prague, he speaks in Rose Garden about the mine disaster and the retirement of Justice Stevens. Race to the Top high school commencement finalists are announced -- Obama to give the graduation address at the winning school. April 10. Polish leaders die in a plane crash on their way to a commemoration of the Katyn Massacre.

April 11-13. Obama hosts the Nuclear Security Summit in D.C. He holds several bilateral meetings at Blair House. He rolls out "a strategy to build New Orleans back up stronger and smarter and better" than before Katrina. He plans to go to Poland for the funerals but the volcanic ash over Europe prevents him. April 14. Holds a White House meeting on Wall Street reform. April 15. In Florida. Appears at Cape Canaveral with Buzz Aldrin. Gives one of two important April speeches--this one on space exploration, for which he pledges to increase the NASA budget for projects that "improve understanding of the climate." Announces the extension of jobless benefits. Attends two DNC events, one at Gloria Estefan's mansion. Says he is amused by the Tea Party rallies against taxes.

April 16. Weekly radio address. On Wall Street reform. April 19. Nominates Donald Berwick as Medicare/Medicaid administrator. (In August Berwick, to the ire of Republicans, will be a recess appointment.) Speaking at one of two fundraisers in Los Angeles for embattled Senator Barbara Boxer, Obama is heckled by a gay rights protestor. April 20. Flying back from LA, Obama phones Senator Scott Brown about immigration and financial reform. The press corps on AF1 are most interested in former White House Counsel Greg Craig taking a job at Goldman Sachs and the rumor that Rahm Emanuel will run for mayor of Chicago. No one asks about the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

April 21. Continues the months-long process of judicial nominations and administration appointments. April 22. Commemorates Earth Day in the Rose Garden. In New York, gives his second important April speech, his second Cooper Union speech on financial regulation. April 23. Speaks at a naturalization ceremony for members of the armed services. Flies to Asheville, NC for some R & R. April 24. Talks about the promising news out of the auto industry. Counters with the caution that Wall Street reform needed. Plays golf (a regular pastime). April 25. Visits with Billy Graham and his son Franklin at the Graham NC house. Delivers a eulogy in Beckley, WVA for the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. Visits with each family individually. April 26-27. Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in D.C. Muslim leaders in business and NGOs from 50 countries come for dialogue with their American counterparts. This is a fulfillment of a promise Obama made in Cairo, as he reminds our guests in his speech. This is also one of the small beginnings of a new foreign policy, right now finding its sea legs under the radar. Obama talks to Governor Haley Barbour about the Alabama tornado. The oil rig explosion is second on the agenda.

April 29. Obama pushes the Disclose Act to counter the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The import of the BP oil spill begins to sink in. Obama begins his day with an update on the spill, calls the governors of the four states threatened and delivers BP remarks in the Rose Garden. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, flanked by administration officials, presides over a lengthy BP presser. At the National Cathedral, at the funeral service for civil rights matriarch Dorothy Height, Obama delivers a eulogy in which he mentions Height's visit to the White House on the occasion of his hanging a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in the Oval Office. At night, Obama attends a fundraiser in DC.

May 1. American Faisal Shahzad, having studied with the Pakistan Taliban, tried to set off a bomb in Times Square.

The dramatic irony is all in the foreshadowing. In retrospect, we can see clearly how slowly Obama and his administration (and really everybody except people who know the Gulf and drilling) awakened to the scope and import of the gusher. Not until May 26, when James Carville yelled, "We're about to die down here!" would Obama turn the full force of executive power against the disaster. The April calendar is shot through with portents of what would turn out to be one of the worst presidential summers, at least in my recollection. The explosions in the mine and in the Gulf, not to mention the volcanic eruption in Iceland and the earthquake in Haiti pre-April, would be but harbingers of the millennial floods in August in Pakistan.

The tea party rallies, which Obama found amusing in the spring, would lead inexorably to the Shirley Sherrod debacle. The Times Square bomber, and the recent spectacle of other Americans venturing forth into jihad, has brought us in part to the summer's mosque controversy, in which Americans of good will on both sides of the debate demonize one another. Obama does not help the situation when, with a two-step, he proffers a nuanced view. Inflection points of the season: Wikileaks, the firing of General McChrystal, Arizona's taking the problem of illegal immigration into its own hands, the Republican Party rising like a phoenix from the ashes of 2008, born aloft on the updraft of voter anger and fear. What a terrible summer for Barack Obama. (From superstition, I couldn't even write this piece until the summer was almost over.)

Throughout April, at his talks with middle class Americans, Obama was upbeat about the economy. "Lately, we've seen some welcome news after a hard two years," Obama told the workers at POET Biorefining in Missouri. "Our economy is growing, our markets are climbing, and our businesses are beginning to create jobs again. But when you get out to this neck of the woods and others like it, you see that the recovery hasn't reached everyone just yet. Times are tough out here. In some places, they have been for a long time." But here it is now the end of August, and bad economic news, like a torrent, keeps coming and coming. On April 30, Christina Romer, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, announced that our real GDP for the first quarter of 2010 rose 3.2%. It fell 6.4% in the same quarter of 2009. Many if not most of the American people are just not feeling it.

What is President Obama doing about this? Exactly what he did in April. Talking with everyday Americans over and over and over again. Doing that nuance two-step. Welcome news; Times are tough. He doesn't appear to be "fired up" because he has his eye on the far horizon, where all the efforts that now seem scattershot converge. This is the long arc of policy, aiming and holding true for the time when all the fledgling programs and fitful starts (20 jobs here, 200 there) and long term investments in education and research and new energy technology begin to pay off.

Obama is pacing himself for the long haul. Meanwhile he's out in the heartland doing one of the things a leader does the way a modern leader does it: tramping through barns and factories and sitting at kitchen tables, listening, encouraging, defending. But in the end the decisions are his. He wanted health care reform in his first year, and he got it. He overruled hesitations and opposition from the American people because he had his eye on that far distance at a healthy economic horizon. It was what he deemed, within the parameters of compromise, to be right. He has always said, "I will have the biggest seat at the table." In this light, it is hard to see how Arianna Huffington can make the case that Obama is "pleading powerlessness" on the economy, or how John Judis can convincingly argue that Obama "has a strange aversion to confrontational politics." This is not to say that the President has not made mistakes. The run-down of the April calendar shows clearly that he has.

In "Obama Is Just Not That Into You," Arianna Huffington asserts that "real change will only come when enough people outside Washington demand it." History would seem to say otherwise -- I conclude -- or I would be worried, because the Tea Party is the ascendant populist movement, and however good some Tea Partiers' intentions, they are naïve about the necessary levers of governing in a country that is a world power. The people, or one group of the people, calling the shots is not the antidote to presidential error. The role of a leader is to take people where sometimes they do not want to go. This was the arc of the Lincoln presidency and therefore one of the reasons Obama identifies so with Lincoln.

In his Cooper Union speech on April 22, Obama concluded much as he had there in 2008.

This is the central lesson not only of this [financial] crisis but of our history. It's what I said when I spoke here two years ago. Ultimately, there is no dividing line between Main Street and Wall Street. We rise or we fall together as one nation.

It is not happenstance that Obama has given speeches at Cooper Union. The second speech, in April, underlines the intention of the first, to establish a historical connection with Lincoln, who gave a career-making speech there in 1860, asserting that his party advanced the interests of the country and not just the North. One nation. This was Lincoln's idea. It is Obama's focus, too. This is why, in large view, progressives and "professional liberals" feel that Obama has let them down. He is not that into them, any more than he is into African-Americans (some of whom have also expressed disappointment) -- this is true -- where "into" means at the expense of other Americans.

"We've got to keep the long view," Obama said in Portland, ME on April 1. "That's our task. " A paradox of human society is that the people who have the least expect less and those who have the most expect more. So it is the well-educated and comfortably well-off who are impatient with the President and squawking that the sky is falling. Since most of the reportage and almost all the opinion pieces in mainstream media now spring from the assumptions of a sliver of our society, the American upper middle class, at a time when shaping a news story around conflict and revelation has usurped the place of laying down the historical record, the depiction of Barack Obama and his presidency has grown increasingly skewed.

Obama himself does not see what the pundits see. At a presser aboard AF1 on the way back to DC from Quincy, Illinois, when asked how he thought the (White House to Main Street) trip went, Obama said,

It was a reminder that sometimes there's a mismatch between the way politics are portrayed in Washington and how people are feeling. I think it's a less toxic atmosphere, where people are genuinely concerned about jobs, or they've got serious questions about how the new health care bill is going to work or what's happening with immigration or other issues. But generally I think what people are looking for is that their elected officials think about them first and foremost and are working hard. And they realize that some of these problems are hard, that they're not going to be solved overnight. They just want to make sure that we're working on their behalf and not on behalf of some ideological agenda or some special interest in Washington. So I really enjoyed it.

This is the president who supposedly is not in touch.


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