Please see TWO UPDATES at the end. The first is my reflection on 640 comments as of 1:30am Sunday NYC time. The second is the beginning of an answer to the questions "How can this virus be eliminated?" and "How do we get Pres. Obama to see this threat and take action?"
What is the mindset inside the Obama White House these days? I've been wondering about this ever since Robert Gibbs went off on what he calls "the professional left" the other day. Not only did Michael Moore wind up talking with Keith Olbermann about this, but Paul Krugman (who I consider "professionally economically brilliant" as contrasted with "professionally left") wrote about it as well.
Now Robert Gibbs is no idiot. He may have said something he didn't mean to say, but his frustration can't be his alone. He's just too wired into the rest of the Obama Administration for him to be uniquely frustrated. If he says the "professional left" is wrong to criticize the Obama Administration, then they all feel that way.
So, who is right? Gibbs or The Professional Left?
Well, I believe it's possible to work through the emotional back and forth... the "You should do more!" / "Look at how much we've done!" tug of war... and get to a place where we can see - more or less objectively - whether what the Obama Administration has given us so far is enough or not.
Some Additional Thoughts On The Mindset Within The Obama Administration
I know what my mindset would be if I was in the White House these days: absolute, never-ending terror... because I would see how many things are falling apart around me and how little chance there is to fix things without adopting a truly radical and risky strategy...
"What collapsing empire looks like" by Glenn Greenwald
"America Goes Dark" by Paul Krugman
"Putting Our Brains On Hold" by Bob Herbert
And, in private, I would acknowledge that the real reason why I've lost two top members of my economic team is because too many people who talk about the health of America's economy are starting to claim that the currently horrendous economic conditions are "structural" and, therefore, cannot be changed (as if there were some "economic structure god" who will prevent us from changing the aspects of our economy which no longer work).
Scary-sounding but true. And I would acknowledge it, so I could deal with it.
But what is really going on in President Obama's White House? Well, I suspect that they are terrified too. But they can't admit that to us. And maybe not even to themselves. There was a lot of truth in the humorous headline "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job" that The Onion ran in November 2008.
And that was written based on how bad things were after eight years of the Bush/Cheney/Rove Administration.
But now we have even more bad things to worry about:
President Obama abandoning his campaign promise to leave Iraq.
There being no strategy for winning the Afghan War, despite Obama's lengthy strategy review.
A corporate community in which Wall Street and companies like BP are running such complex operations and throwing so much money around that they are still at liberty to put making money their first priority, even if it means that the larger population suffers for it. (Making money by hurting people. Doesn't that just sound so American to you? No, it doesn't to me either!)
And let's not forget the current media culture - which the Obama Administration inherited and has also failed to do anything about - in which appearances are much, much more important than reality... a condition that is getting worse.
With that set of problems and in that kind of media environment, what I see is an Obama Administration devoted to making things look and sound good rather than actually making them good.
I will say more about this in a moment
Not Knowing How To Respond To Negative Feedback From Your Base
Robert Gibb's comments concern me, in part, because not only are they defensive but they also are evidence of that famous "smartest guys in the room" syndrome that caused the ENRON company to collapse.
"Don't complain to us, because you obviously don't know as much as we do about how what we are doing is actually helping you".
This to me is the expressed message of Robert Gibbs, reflecting the intellectual attitude within the Obama Administration. It also reminds me of an article by Frank Rich published in December 2008. "The Brightest Are Not Always The Best" described how President Kennedy's team - also considered the smartest guys in the room ("the best and the brightest") - blew it so badly with the Vietnam War. Frank Rich warned us then that we might be going overboard with our praise of Obama's economic team.
Here are three key excerpts:
The stewards of the Vietnam fiasco had pedigrees uncannily reminiscent of some major Obama appointees. McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, was, as Halberstam put it, "a legend in his time at Groton, the brightest boy at Yale, dean of Harvard College at a precocious age." His deputy, Walt Rostow, "had always been a prodigy, always the youngest to do something," whether at Yale, M.I.T. or as a Rhodes scholar. Robert McNamara, the defense secretary, was the youngest and highest paid Harvard Business School assistant professor of his era before making a mark as a World War II Army analyst, and, at age 44, becoming the first non-Ford to lead the Ford Motor Company.
The rest is history that would destroy the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and inflict grave national wounds that only now are healing.
it's the economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard's history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard's presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers's personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn't count.
Summers and Geithner are both protégés of another master of the universe, Robert Rubin. His appearance in the photo op for Obama-transition economic advisers three days after the election was, to put it mildly, disconcerting. Ever since his acclaimed service as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, Rubin has labored as a senior adviser and director at Citigroup, now being bailed out by taxpayers to the potential tune of some $300 billion. Somehow the all-seeing Rubin didn't notice the toxic mortgage-derivatives on Citi's books until it was too late. The Citi may never sleep, but he snored.
No doubt the Pavlovian ovations for the Obama team are in part a reaction to our immediate political past. After eight years of a presidency that valued cronyism over brains (or even competence) and embraced an anti-intellectualism apotheosized by Sarah Palin, it's a godsend to have a president who puts a premium on merit. I also wonder if a press corps that underrated Obama's political prowess for much of the campaign, demeaning him as a professorial wuss next to the brawny Clinton and McCain, is now overcompensating for that mistake. No one wants to miss out a second time on triumphal history in the making.
Based on Robert Gibbs' comments, it looks like the same "we know better than you" attitude President Kennedy's national security team had has infected President Obama's Administration in general and its economic team (what's left of it) in particular.
The biggest danger of this kind of thinking (of, essentially, believing your own PR) is that you stop being willing to learn anything new that doesn't fit your existing mindset. You take in new data that agrees with your mental model and eliminate the rest.
The sad thing is that after he was elected Barack Obama said at least once "I made a mistake".
It was very refreshing at the time, but that was a long time ago. I had originally hoped that he would maintain that sense of "I know a lot; but I don't know everything."
From "Change We Can Believe In" To "A Failing Strategy We Deserve To Be Worried About"
President Obama has constantly tried to broker deals with the Republican Party, apparently thinking that healing the nation after the Bush years required doing so.
What he doesn't seem to realize is that his election victory itself brought a lot of the country together. I could feel that unity in D.C. on inauguration day. There was so much love in the air, it reminded me of NYC in the days after 9/11.
And he also doesn't seem to realize that what would have finished the job of healing the nation would have been to truly institute the course correction the American people knew was needed when they elected him. That would have been the Change that We Believed We Were Going To Get... change that produced real results. Attempting to negotiate with Republicans and failing time after time didn't make anyone feel better, except those who want to keep the nation divided for purely political reasons.
Except for the very wealthy, American is not experiencing good times. The American spirit is in the worst shape it has been since The Great Depression. Many people feel that the Tea Party is increasing the sociopolitical divide in our country - with talk of "Second Amendment remedies" - to the point where a Second Civil War is about to start if it isn't under way already.
Yet Robert Gibbs believes we should be satisfied with the things the Obama Administration has done. And so now I will explain - using basic systems thinking - why "doing something" isn't the same as "doing the right thing".
Not Recognizing The True Nature Of The Challenge Is A Strategy For Failing
In order to develop a successful strategy you must understand the nature of the system in which the problems you are working to solve exist.
It is not enough to work on the problems separately. Because if the larger system is dysfunctional, it will just generate those or similar problems again, after you think you have solved them.
The Obama Administration is working on solving problems without taking the nature of that larger system into account. As a result, the Obama Administration ("the best and the brightest") don't see the true nature of the fight they are in. They don't see the granddaddy of all problems: perhaps the biggest challenge America has ever faced.
America is losing the ability to know what is true and what is false.
Many of us grew up on the expression "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" from the Superman comics, 1950's TV show, and movies from the 1970's and '80's. That's just once example of how truth is burned into the American ideal of itself through popular culture.
But of course truth was there - without having to be fictionalized - when the Founding Fathers created this great nation. The Founding Fathers did not fight the War for Independence based on lies and falsehoods about the danger from remaining under British rule!
Without knowing what the truth is, American society cannot function.
Put in more graphic terms, America is a patient that was wheeled into the Emergency Room in January of 2009, desperately in need of a team of skilled doctors to save its life. America's life's blood - a true accounting of its condition and required remedies - had been draining away at least since President Bush convinced the country to attack Iraq by using the 9/11 attack as justification for doing so.
And while the bailout legislation stemmed some of America's "economic bleeding," the whole of America was not given the treatment required to cure it of the disease... the virus... that was threatening its system then and is still threatening its system now.
Once again, the virus that has been running almost totally unchecked through the body politic of America at least since 9/11 is a fear and lie-driven effort - too well coordinated for it to be accidental - to kill off America's ability to make rational and logical decisions about its future.
America (the patient) had many symptoms in November of 2008 that drove voters to give the Democrats the huge victory that they got. The Wall Street-triggered economic crisis, failing health care and education systems, crumbling national infrastructure, behavior that made America one of the least respected nations on the planet, two hugely expensive wars, etc. But as terrible as these were, they were only the symptoms of a greater underlying disease.
And that underlying disease - the inability of the truth to be heard... truth that would enable America's problems to be solved once and for all - has not been addressed. And it must be addressed.
This is why I say the Obama Administration's strategy is one that by design will fail. It's a strategy that doesn't even recognize what it's up against.
Al Gore Knows The True Disease Infecting America
I'd like to think that Barack Obama read Al Gore's book "The Assault on Reason" when it was published in 2007. But perhaps he didn't. Either way, here is Al giving a 34 minute talk about his book. I think it gets at this disease so forcefully that it is more important to America's future than "An Inconvenient Truth".
The essential message of "The Assault on Reason" is that America's ability to use reason and logic to plan the most effective and appropriate path to the future is threatened by an increasingly powerful communication network that uses lies, fear, and a very sophisticated delivery mechanism to cloud the judgement of the American people... all in service of keeping a certain class of people in power.
Power gained through lies promulgated through disinformation campaigns is not power the Founding Fathers would say had been earned. The Founding Fathers were on the side of the angels. Those who would gain power through lies and celebrating ignorance and playing the victim as a virtue come from a very different place.
Protect the Constitution from all enemies both foreign and domestic
We Americans love our sports. We celebrate great athletic skill almost above anything else. And our presidents have always been shown in various different athletic circumstances to show that "they've got it too".
President Obama's skills on the basketball court get talked about a lot. He is also likened to a Zen master chess champion. Both are admirable, and neither are what America needs.
And that's because America is not in the middle of a basketball contest. It's not in the middle of a chess championship that isn't going our way. America's very life is at stake. If the forces that live though lies and deceit come to power, the America of "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" will be lost. And if that happens, then not even Superman will be able to save our country.
In November 2008, America did not need a great athlete to lead it to a better future. It needed a great doctor... who was surrounded by other great medical professionals. And it needs that great medical team now more than ever!
The "virus of ignorance" - some might even call it a cancer - and the parallel, unrelenting attack on America's ability to learn... to think... to reason it's way out of this terrible mess is killing our civic culture.
And if our civic culture dies, then America will disintegrate into a collection of warring tribes, each held together by their fear of "the other"... their fear of those who are different than they are... all operating under the grand, false belief that competition (not cooperation) is the natural order of things... the grand, false belief that "survival of the fittest" rules humanity as completely as it does the lowliest of creatures on Earth.
If President Obama has read Al Gore's book, then he needs to understand that he is one of the few people in America capable of marshaling the forces necessary to treat the root cause of this virus and save the civic culture of America.
I believe he proved he has it in him to do this with his speech to the American people about race relations. That speech probably drove more people to believe that "Change We Can Believe In" wasn't just a slogan than anything else the Obama campaign did.
But if President Obama is going to be the doctor America needs, he will have to start telling the hard truths America needs to hear himself. That will increase his credibility as having the credentials needed to successfully cure the overall viral infection.
And one place he can start is with America's unemployment figures.
In a complete denial of factual reality, the Federal government stops counting you as being unemployed once you stop looking for a job. That's right. Give up looking for a job? Congratulations! You are no longer unemployed! This is complete lunacy. And it's our government at work. Bob Herbert wrote eloquently about this shameful governmental policy in his recent "The Horror Show" OpEd.
I think President Obama could probably stop that practice instantly by signing an Executive Order.
But getting rid of this disease will require much more. And here's a good place for President Obama and his team to start. They should read the language in the Presidential Oath of Office and compare that to the one taken by members of the armed forces.
I,__________________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States faithfully, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.
I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
I find it interesting that members of our armed forces explicitly say they will defend the Constitution against "all enemies, foreign and domestic" and don't get to recite the qualifier "to the best of my ability". The first part says "look our for dangers that exist at home", and the lack of the qualifier says "No excuses. You will do whatever it takes."
Now that the Obama Administration knows they must see themselves as doctors not sports figures, I trust they will work to develop those new skills needed in order to avoid making excuses later. I know plenty of people in the systems thinking profession who would be happy to help.
The first skill I recommend is recognizing when your country is under attack from within. This is an attack on America's value system as deadly as any I can imagine a foreign government dreaming up.
To eliminate our ability to operate from the truth. That is one serious "domestic terrorist threat". (And yes, I just labeled those who use lies and deception... even within the US government... as terrorists.)
What Curing This Disease Would Then Enable The Obama Presidency To Do
Imagine an American civic culture where the truth ruled the day. Imagine an America where being an expert in something meant that your opinion was respected. We all use experts all the time. Product designers are experts. Auto mechanics are experts. Engineers are experts. Doctors are experts. Police and firefighters are experts. Professional singers and athletes are experts. Why not policy developers? It's possible.
Let me make this as simple as I can.
The quality of the legislation passed so far (health care, financial reform, stimulus package) is like the home built of straw in the story of The Three Little Pigs. It looks okay, but when the Big Bad Wolf comes along he has no trouble blowing it over. Two tries later (and with the pigs fortunately still alive), they finally build a house made of brick. And that house is able to withstand the wolf's best efforts to blow it down.
America needs the truth. It needs logic and reason. America must solve the challenges it faces in ways that stand the test of time. We can't afford to build houses of straw when brick is what the objective facts demand.
And I will add one of my favorite truths the Obama Administration would be wise to add into the American "solution development conversation": The Corporate Social Responsibility (sometimes called Corporate Sustainability Leadership) movement. A great many Americans are justifiably angry at the corporate community, especially Wall Street. I have never heard the Obama Administration acknowledge the existence of this now 17 year old movement to change the values underlying capitalism... a movement supported by many leading American corporations (more information here and here)
Were President Obama to publicly champion this movement, he would be giving the American people hope that not all corporations are bad.
And I will finish with one phrase: The First Motion Picture Unit of WWII.
This massive government-funded communication effort taught the American people the truth about what it would take to win WWII. And Jack Warner (of Warner Bros. fame) led this organization of mostly Hollywood motion picture experts in making sure the American people got the message in ways that were entertaining as well as educational.
America can be a land where political calculus is based on the truth. And given how sick the patient is, if President Obama doesn't decide to cure this virus, his legacy will be that when America was on life support he thought he and the virus that is killing us were playing a championship game of basketball.
Is there a doctor in The (White) House?
UPDATE No. 1: 1:30am Sunday morning NYC time
Looking at the roughly 640 comments on my essay, I am struck by the resistance on the part of those who can't see beyond the left/right power struggle we've had for years. The problem I have with that is that when one side in that struggle develops a mental disease (the inability to admit what is true), you have to stop the struggle and treat the illness.
Think this kind of strategy sounds crazy? You'd be right! But crazy people are the only ones who have ever changed the world. Here's to the crazy ones..
UPDATE No. 2: 1:55pm Sunday afternoon NYC time
In answer to the question "How can Pres. Obama rid America of this disease?", here is the beginning of my solution:
What Pres. Obama needs to do is "name it". He needs to look straight into the camera during a national address from the Oval Office and tell America that he is launching a campaign to end the practice of lies masquerading as the truth. Not be outlawing it but by shining a light on it... constantly... continuously.
"Light purifies". (I trust some of you have heard of this concept before.)
And then he needs to treat people who are infected with this mental disease as if they are sick people... not healthy people with a different opinion, which is what he has been doing until now.
That's a beginning.
But then he also has to start telling the truth.... about the difference between Bills that "sound good" (until you get into the details) and Bills that will actually produce the result we say we want.
These are a few suggestions... a beginning.
In answer to the question "How do we get Pres. Obama to see this threat and take action?", I will tell you what I know about how elected representatives (all people for that matter) respond to their constituents: A hand written letter physically mailed makes a HUGE difference compared to emails sent in using those automatic opinion generating web sites.
Since almost no one really sends letters any more (one reason the Post Office is having huge financial difficulties), when a real, honest to God letter actually arrives, your elected representative takes notice.
Now, of course, in the case of the President of the United States it's a bit more work. By that I mean, it would take many hand written letters for he and his staff to take notice. But what I do know (from the Washington Post) is that Pres. Obama's team goes through all the letters he receives and delivers 10 of them to him each day. He has this fixed routine of reading these 10 letters every day. Therefore, if he gets enough hand written letters from people (with a copy of this essay attached), I think at least one copy will get through to him.
But to increase that probability, I am recommending that separate hand-written letters also be sent to VP Joe Biden. (Both work at The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington DC 20500). I will be sending mine by FedEx, because I want to get this to their staff as quickly as possible. But regular mail is fine too I'm sure.
Beyond flooding Obama and Biden with real letters, I am open to suggestions. Thanks for your concern in taking this to the next level... those of you who asked.