Dear Mr. President,
In April of 2007, you told David Brooks that Reinhold Niebuhr is one of your favorite philosophers. I was impressed at the time and still am. In re-reading that column from Brooks, I am reminded of the sincere, intelligent, yet powerful candidate who moved me and so much of the nation in the campaign.
When Mr. Brooks asked you what you took away from Niebuhr you said:
"I take away, the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism."
As you seem to be stumbling across the first anniversary of your presidency, I want to encourage you to find your inner Niebuhr this coming year, and especially reflect on his understanding of power.
Many people think of Niebuhr largely in the second half of his career, as the realist who took a hard line in foreign policy against communists. Some neo-cons consider Reinhold the patron saint of the hawkish perspective of confronting evil in the world outside American borders. Yet while "Reinny," as his students called him, did gravitate towards foreign policy in the 50's, his realism was born out of a desire for change right here in America into a radically more just society. (Remember Change?) Grounded in his Christian conviction, Niebuhr was a fierce advocate for the poor, and many forget that he ran for congress in 1932 on the socialist ticket. What we have come to know as a Niebuhrian approach to foreign policy was originally a strategy for domestic progress.
Niebuhr came out of the liberal 'social gospel' Christian tradition that he rejected -- not because he disagreed with the movement's goal for social and economic justice -- but because he felt that the theology of the social gospel was unrealistic and the means the social gospel suggested to reach a just society were naive and ineffective. Instead he believed that only power would create change. Niebuhr wrote in the New Republic that liberal idealism "lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It's too intellectual, and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history."
You know all this about Niebuhr Mr. President - but didn't you fall into the liberal idealist trap?
You started off your presidency with a serious desire to reach across party lines and to unify our severely divided country. A wonderful sentiment, but a fatal mistake. You would never have been able to unify the entire country; you could only have taken advantage of the serious majority of opinion that you held. You spoke at your inauguration to hundreds of thousands who weathered the cold to be present on the Mall and instead of rallying us to the cause of Change which you promised; you spoke in serious tones about the work to come, and the need to come together. It seemed so right at the time. Your inauguration was not a time for one party or point of view to celebrate; it was time to come together. You invited Rick Warren to give the invocation showing your respect to white Evangelicals, almost none of whom voted for you -- but they gave you little credit for the invitation of Warren. You let your Republican colleagues have their say on the important issues of finance reform, health care, and the environment -- but all they said was "no." You kept out of the health care fray and encouraged the month of August to be used for Townhall discussions on health care -- but the only people who were talking were carrying signs comparing you to Hitler.
Where you saw your actions as providing an opportunity for bringing our country together, Republicans saw weakness of resolve and blocked you every step of the way, never once voting with you on any domestic issue. The result is that you are starting your second term with a serious problem of momentum, and can expect no help from the Republican side (who always hoped you would fail), and only lukewarm support from your former supporters who really did expect more from you.
Mr. President, it is time for you to adopt a realist understanding of the depth of the power that is working to ensure that you fail. In one of his best known works, Moral Man, Immoral Society, Niebuhr argued that while individuals might act with self-sacrificing love, groups never willingly give up power. You are dealing with industries and political organizations who do not have your or the majority of the American people's best interests at heart. They have no intention in compromise, or reconciliation and it includes a group of fringe fanatics and members of congress who continue to spread the rumor that you are not American as well as play on fear of your race. Your opposition is serious and you have to be as well.
You have a great team who helped to get you elected and it is time to turn back on the heat. Many of us still support the policies you ran on and that you have proposed, it is time to get back into campaign mode, this time to pass legislation. Get out of the White House more, make more appearances around the country, no more last moment emails -- I haven't opened an email from you since you won the Presidency -- I want to see you out and about barnstorming for justice. Take Teddy Roosevelt as your guide - get out there and fight for what you believe. Your brilliant appearance last Friday with the Republican congressional representatives was the right start, but keep it going. Use every power that you legally can to make sure that your presidency doesn't end with health care only for those who can afford it, financial structures that only benefit Wall Street, or environmental policies that will lead to world ruin. Fight the entrenched power of the status quo with the power of the people who elected you, and the power of the righteousness that comes from fighting for the "least of these."
No more Mr. Nice Guy. It's time for tough love. Take a deep breath, take the gloves off, and let us have it.
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