On Monday, President Obama spoke to the Chamber of Commerce, the leading business-interest lobby in the United States. The occasion marked the President's newest attempt to rally business to solve America's short and long-term economic problems. Unfortunately, it also served to remind the American people that corporate business, not the American people, control the country's destiny.
Mr. Obama's presentation was civil, even buoyant, but that did nothing to hide the tension between him and the Chamber. Mr. Obama stood in front of men and women who had fought health care reform viciously, spent millions successfully advertising against Democratic incumbents in the 2010 elections, opposed the Employee Free Choice Act, and who now were refusing to spend billions of dollars being held in reserve. He was well aware that many in the room wanted, to quote Rush Limbaugh, his Presidency to fail. Yet, rather than "take on the special interests" as he had promised to do so many times in his 2008 campaign and presidency, he played the political version of Mr. Rogers.
"I'm here in the interest of being more neighborly," Mr. Obama told the Chamber. "Maybe if we would have brought over a fruit cake when I first moved in, we would have gotten off on a better foot. But I'm going to make it up." His speech underscored his enduring desire to work with US businesses to get America back on the right track: "If there is a reason you don't believe that this is the time to get off the sidelines -- to hire and invest -- I want to know about it. I want to fix it." The President stressed that private business would lead America out of the recession and back to global prominence. And in all of this the U.S. government and the Obama Administration would act as a sidekick.
It was disturbing to watch Mr. Obama strain to buddy-up with his political enemies, not because it is likely to prove ineffective, but because it made the leader of the free world seem servile and insignificant. With each half-hearted punch line, Mr. Obama became more and more like the king who knelt in the snow.
The scene was Europe at the turn of the first century. Pope Gregory VII had attempted to strip Emperor Henry IV of his sovereign right to appoint the clergymen that served the Holy Roman Empire. When the Emperor resisted and, in a show of ultimate defiance, challenged Gregory's legitimacy as Holy Pontiff, the Pope excommunicated the Emperor, thus severing him from the Holy Church and all of Christendom.
The events that followed were pure political spectacle. After a series of diplomatic scuffles, the Emperor chose to apologize to the Pope. And in the most dramatic display of servility, he marched to meet the Pope in Italy. But when he arrived, the Pope refused to grant him entry. The Emperor, determined to regain favor, then stood in the snow, barefoot, praying for forgiveness.
For three days, the Emperor was given no quarter or sustenance. Still, he continued to pray without knowing whether his prayers would be heard; the Pope had previously declared the excommunication irrevocable.
On the third day, Pope Gregory relented, and the Emperor was received back into the Christian family. But the point had been made. What came to be known as the Investiture Controversy demonstrated the Papacy's power to kings throughout Europe and, for centuries, sovereign monarchs cowed before the Pope and the Church.
I first heard this story in high school, and I've never forgotten it because my adolescent mind could not imagine any Head of State, even of the smallest nation, kneeling before a non-state authority. It just served to remind me how different things were now. No President would ever be caught in such a position, I thought.
And then I read President Obama's speech and could only wonder, "How long has the President been kneeling?" Mr. Obama's remarks suggest that he might have been in this position for a very long time - we are just now beginning to take notice. But what's worse is that Mr. Obama's kneeling reveals that American democracy is imperiled.
A democratic nation should be ruled by the many, not the few. Yet, the Chamber of Commerce is attempting to determine the economic, and thus political, fate of our nation. Like religious authorities of the first millennium, business has asserted its dominance over the affairs of sovereign men. What is to be done?
The responses of both the political Right and Left have been unimpressive. The political right would have us believe that the President has been hostile to business. If he would only be friendlier to business interests and stop confusing them with unnecessary regulations, the economy would jump-start. But the truth is that President Obama has been more than neighborly, to the tune of $700 billion. He's promised more in his State of the Union, saying the U.S. would focus on infrastructure and technology spending. All this and the Right still thinks that he's hostile? They must be taking that fruitcake joke seriously!
If the Right thinks Mr. Obama has been too hostile, the Left believes he's been too friendly. They look at his Cabinet and Staff and hold their noses. His inner circle reeks of Wall Street types and centrists like Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, and new White House Chief of Staff William Daley. Too much money and too little concern for the disadvantaged, critics shout. Cornel West has gone so far as to pose the most existential of questions to the President: "How deep is your love for poor and working people?"
The problem with this question is that it could be turned right around and posed to the American Left. This is not to say that Mr. Obama has not clung to the center, but did he have a choice? After 2008, the legions of young, independent, and African American voters that helped Mr. Obama secure the presidency abandoned the Democrats in the midterm elections. When he needed them most, they didn't turn up to the ballot box and, thus, we saw Democratic majorities shredded in both the House and the Senate.
It's no surprise then that the President compromised with Republicans on extending tax cuts for the rich. He didn't have the legislative support to do otherwise. But he did secure unemployment benefits for over 14 million Americans who need them. Is that not love? And, if that's not enough, let's remember, if raising one child takes a village, it takes more than one man to raise a nation.
In short, the Left would rather chastise President Obama than help him to his feet, while the Right would prefer to ask him to lie down flat on his belly and grovel (as though that would help). None of this serves the interests of the American people.
What the Right and Left seem to be missing is that this isn't about one man. The way the Chamber and corporate business interests approach the President speaks volumes about how they treat each of us. It is no wonder then that, as Mr. Obama is being cowed, millions of Americans are unemployed, millions more are underemployed, and states are either going into the red, forcing their citizens to do without vital services, or both. The Nation's fate is tied to its President's, and as long as he is kept kneeling, America will not move forward.
Corporate business interests have had a strangle hold on Washington for many decades now. And the President's kneeling reveals that there is no easy way to break this corporate death grip. One thing is clear, however: It is in our interest - Left, Right and, yes, Tea Party - to form a collective bulwark against the Chamber and its attempts to determine our political futures, to tell the Chamber that a free people will not bend before the will of business as man once bent before the will of God. Because, if we fail to stand together, we'll all be left with cold (wet) feet.
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