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Robin Wells Headshot

What Obama Needs to Learn from Sarah Palin

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Are we having fun yet? Birthers, Limbaugh's diatribe equating Obama to Hitler, fistfights at town halls, an enormous increase in death threats against the president. And now our diva moment, with Sarah Palin -- in full victimhood throttle -- charging on Friday that an "Obama death panel" could deny health care and pass a death sentence on her Down syndrome child. Welcome to the lunatic asylum. Oh, I'm sorry...that's being unfair to lunatics.

Joking aside, I have this fervent belief that Obama has somewhere, deep down in his pockets, the keys to escape. And I don't say this out of a Pollyanna-ish view that we can all be bipartisan if we just try hard enough. I don't have any illusions about a future in which the left and right stroll arm in arm into the setting sun.

As I see it, the reality is that, in America, the lunatics will always be with us -- or at least for a long time. Our uniquely noxious blend of racism, right wing politics, and moneyed interests exploiting racial fears and economic insecurity have hollowed out the core of moderation in American politics. In an unbroken line from Goldwater to Limbaugh and Palin, the Republican party has committed itself to scorched-earth tactics that have shredded the economic, political, and moral fabric of this country.

Watching the drama unfold over health care reform, one can't help but have one's heart go out to Obama -- a fundamentally decent man, with good intentions, faced with an implacable foe. It appears that Obama is slowly overcoming the blind faith in bipartisanship that sabotaged his stimulus package, and today's attack on Republicans' "outlandish rumors" is a hopeful sign.

But it's nowhere near enough. That's made clear by Obama's statement that his opponents are "exploit[ing] differences or concerns for political gain. That's to be expected. That's Washington." No, this is not politics as usual. There's no "as usual" with a foe bent on utter destruction. In contrast, Palin understands the nature of the battle, when she states that adopting Obama's health care reform amounts to "a point of no return" for America. Underestimating this challenge means losing the battle.

So what does Obama need to learn from Palin? First, he needs to really hear her. This is no longer a question of getting the facts straight. Granted, getting the facts straight about health care reform is necessary, and those who provided those facts performed an absolutely vital service. But we've moved beyond that point now. As Palin has said, the place we're at now is about good and evil.

And for an intensely cerebral Obama, it's clear to me that this is not a place he wants to go to. Going there for him, I think, means giving in to the angry rhetoric, the unreasonableness, the muck. But sometimes we must dive down in order to come up and break through. We must meet people in their place of fear instead of insisting that they meet us in our comfort zone -- the place of reason. What Obama needs to learn from Palin is that the fight over health care reform is indeed a moral battle. No longer an issue of statistics and parliamentary maneuvers, it's moved to a higher level.

So how does Obama prevail in such a battle? First, he must see things as they really are, not as how he wishes them to be. He must understand that he will face an implacable and destructive Republican opposition for the rest of his presidency. Second, he needs to take on board the insights of Eric Kleefeld and Larry Sabato in this post. As Sabato states in the article, "...something about the negativity motive that seems to result in action. People are willing to spend some time and some effort to oppose something. But rarely are they willing to put out the same effort to support something." As a result, Democrats are losing the intensity battle with Republicans. Health care reform, as well as two extremely valuable governorships in New Jersey and Virginia, hang in the balance.

Third, in order to close the intensity gap Obama needs to re-discover the moral fervor that imbued his campaign during the Democratic primaries. Then, he successfully equated voting for him to transforming America into a better, finer place. With an assured moral authority, he addressed voters' fears and conflicts over race, meeting them in their place of discomfort. Now, Obama seems to have lost that certainty in himself, unable to carry his moral energy beyond his own political dreams. Rather than continuing to appeal on the basis of reasonableness and logic, Obama needs to have a frank, heartfelt discussion with Americans about their fears over health care reform -- over things like rationing, affordability, and loss of control. As in the Jeremiah Wright incident, Obama needs to show that he can empathize with people's fears on a gut level and lead them to a better place. And he needs to be clear about the malign intentions of those who are trying to thwart reform.

In the end, for better or for worse, whether he likes it or not, Obama is joined in a battle against the forces of anger, hate and grievance. A choice not to engage them on a moral level is an abdication. They will not go away, and they will stalk him the rest of his presidency unless he faces them and conquers them. President Obama, you need to go down into your soul and find those keys.