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Remember, Pres. Obama: "It's the Culture (Not Health Care), Stupid!"

09/07/2009 01:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama will be giving a speech on health care reform on Wednesday. Here's why I hope he'll speak on transforming the culture of politics here in America instead.

The Obama administration was smart to avoid the mistake the Clinton administration made during its 1993 attempt at health care reform. You cannot impose reform from the top. Not if you expect that reform to last. Large-scale, systemic change requires the support of as many players as possible, so the final plan can be successfully implemented.

But what I hope President Obama realizes is that there's a hugely applicable lesson in what Bill Clinton and his team did right -- in 1992 during the presidential campaign -- not just in what they did wrong in their health care reform efforts once they were in office.

As the 1993 documentary The War Room showed, the Clinton presidential campaign knew there was one thing above all else on the public's mind: The economy. As a result, everything they did revolved around that issue. And a sign -- "It's the economy, stupid!" -- hung on the wall in the War Room to remind them of this truth.

Fast forward to today (well, technically, a year ago today). What was on the wall in every Obama campaign office?

"Hope" and "Yes, We Can" obama Pictures, Images and Photos Obama Pictures, Images and Photos Not "Out of Iraq Now" or "Ending Our Addiction To Oil." Not even "It's Health Care Reform, Stupid!" No. It was not one issue that got Barack Obama elected. It was one attitude. An attitude captured by Will I. Am's "Yes, We Can" video. It was an attitude that said Progress On All Issues Is Possible!

It was an attitude that was greeted by many of us like a gift from God, because we were living in a world that seemed to be going backwards to the era of the "divine right of Kings;" to a time when asking questions was considered unpatriotic. Our leaders were telling us "We'll save you. Just keep shopping."

It was an attitude that -- because it focused on "We" -- promised a progress that invited all of us to roll up our shirt sleeves and join our new president in making this a better world.

It was an attitude Barack Obama spoke of during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention by saying "All across America, something is stirring... This election has never been about me. It's about you ... Change doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington."

It was an attitude that he would sometimes finish talking about by saying, "Together we can win this election. Together we can transform our world".

But then Barack Obama won the election. And what happened?

In classic, mechanical problem-solving fashion, the Obama transition team drew up a list of all the "broken parts" of society the new administration would work to fix. And a terrific list it was. Still is, in fact.

But you know what didn't make the list?

Transforming the country.

Now you might say "What do you mean 'transforming the country' is not on the list? Fixing all the things that are broken will transform the country!"

Well, actually, it won't.

Even if the entire list of problems were to get solved (using -- as many suggest -- a "Democrats push through the necessary changes over Republican opposition" strategy), that would not transform the country. And that's because transforming a system means fundamentally altering the basic way in which that system functions. Not the way the parts function, but the way the whole system functions.

And -- in the case of the conflict-based, kids-fighting-in-a-schoolyard system we have today -- that means shifting our politics from one in which "It's us against them" is the first thought people have when they get up in the morning to one in which "It's all of us working together for the good of the nation" is that first thought.

You see, even if the Obama administration and its allies in Congress were to pass all the legislation talked about during the campaign, without a fundamental, cultural transformation from "it's you or me" to "it's us together" that legislation will just be resisted by "the other side" when it's being implemented.

Think of all the law suits an angry Republican minority might bring! (Well, maybe you shouldn't think of them, if you want to be able to sleep tonight!)

I learned a long time ago that -- as wonderful as passing new legislation is -- it's in the implementation of new legislation where a lot of reform efforts die a slow death (with hardly any press coverage of their passing). After all, a bill signing ceremony makes for great news. But tracking new legislation - year after year - to see if it's being implemented? Terrible news. No pictures with the president. Happens over time instead of on a special day.

I trust you get my point here.

The bad news, folks, is that we actually have no choice but to transform our culture. And, yes, I just used the word "we." I didn't say "President Obama." He can lead us. But he can't do it for us. Which -- if you recall -- is how he said it would be during the campaign!!!

If you listen to Barack Obama's acceptance speech (starting at about the 37 min. point) you hear him talking about a new kind of politics. That was the promise of his campaign.

That was his version of "It's the economy, stupid!" He knew that this focus would win the election, because he knew that a transformed political culture was what we wanted ... and what the country needed!

And -- having been in Washington for the inauguration (where I was at both the swearing in ceremony and one of the inaugural balls) -- I can tell you that the promise of this new kind of politics is what really got Barack Obama elected!

We, those who voted for him, elected him to transform our political culture, because we knew -- some consciously and some unconsciously -- that none of our problems would get solved in a lasting way without it!

Still not convinced a transformation is essential, as hard as that sounds? Well, don't take my word for it. Take the word of Paul Krugman, who ended his August 31st column -- "Missing Richard Nixon" -- with the following:

And what about other challenges? Every desperately needed reform I can think of, from controlling greenhouse gases to restoring fiscal balance, will have to run the same gantlet of lobbying and lies.

I'm not saying that reformers should give up. They do, however, have to realize what they're up against. There was a lot of talk last year about how Barack Obama would be a "transformational" president -- but true transformation, it turns out, requires a lot more than electing one telegenic leader. Actually turning this country around is going to take years of siege warfare against deeply entrenched interests, defending a deeply dysfunctional political system.


"...true transformation... requires a lot more than electing one telegenic leader."

Absolutely correct. But, Paul (if you happen to be reading this), "years of siege warfare" does not create "true transformation."

Warfare creates revolution. And at the end, you're left with "winners and losers," just like you had at the beginning, where the "losers" look to "fight again some other day."

Transformation, like the classic caterpillar becoming a butterfly, is an evolutionary leap involving the whole system, not a process of one side beating the other side into submission.

The transformation the United States needs, and which candidate Obama ran on (with "Hope" and "Yes, we can" -- not "Health care reform now" -- ringing out across the land), is the final phase of the transformation Abraham Lincoln worked toward when confronted with his Civil War, which is now Barack's Civil War, and ours!

You see, in a very real way, we are still fighting the Civil War. Crazy as that may sound to some, I think that to many the divide we've read about in our history books is a divide we know still exists today. The shooting may have stopped, but the animosities continue.

From everything he said as a candidate, I believe President Obama knows this to be true as well. And he knows he was elected on a promise to do something about it by leading us to work with him to create the transformation that will finally make America a house not divided against itself.

This is a potentially hugely historic moment for America. Not just individual problems, but how the legislative process is conducted throughout the land is on the table because we elected a president who campaigned on just this cultural evolutionary issue!

So, how can this transformation begin?

Well, here's my idea for how it could.

If President Obama has been doing what some people hope -- using a variation on Muhammad Ali's "Rope-A-Dope" tactic to let the Republicans show us exactly what strategy they bring to the legislative process -- he could start Wednesday's speech with the following:

Some of you must be sick and tired of this nonsense. I know the American people who elected me are. They elected me to do the whole country's business. And whether you recognize it or not, they elected you to do the whole country's business as well. Not the business of just certain parts. Because the American people -- the vast majority of them -- love their country: all of it! They don't just love their home towns or their state capitals. They love their beaches, their lakes, their parks.

That's why the beginning of "America the Beautiful" includes the words "America, America... God shed his grace on thee... And crown thy good with brotherhood... From sea to shining sea!"

"From sea to shining sea" not "just where I and people who think like me live."

I think I know that in your heart of hearts all of you wish you could leave the kind of legislative legacy that Senator Ted Kennedy has left. I think that's what you'd like to be known for, what you'd like to be able to tell your grandchildren you did for your country and what you'd like to hear Saint Peter congratulate you for having done when your time in Heaven begins.

I'm sure you all want to go to Heaven; but, frankly, I'm not sure you'll all make it. Because right now, many of you are doing all you can to pit God's children against each other. And that's a violation of the basic principle of Love thy neighbor. Big time!

Well, if you really want to leave a legacy like Senator Kennedy, if you really want to have something positive to show for your time on this Earth, then here's my plan for how we can do this kind of work, togetherwith the help of the American people, for the rest of this year, and the next, and the next, and the next ... slowly getting better at doing so, one day at a time.


And then President Obama would spell out a transformational legislative process proposal -- not policy proposal -- focused on formally building collaboration back into the system. It would be the kind of collaboration that once existed in Washington, when members from opposite sides of the isle would socialize with each other when the day's work was done. Play sports together. Go to cultural events together. Be seen in public together, so that the voters would know that these were friends with "friendly disagreements," not mortal enemies seeking to make the opinions of those on the other side have no validity in the public discourse at all.

And it would be the kind of collaboration that once existed out amongst the American people themselves more than today, too. (Do you remember a time when people really did have a "personal life" and the contribution they made to society was what people focused on?)

This transformational process proposal would be one designed for our crazy, "everyone is a journalist, film maker, and publisher" world (to quote Tom Friedman on yesterday's Meet the Press).

It would be a transformational process proposal founded on the principles of those programs a lot of individuals already use to support them in taking responsibility for their personal behavior, expanded to address issues of national -- not just personal -- character.

You know the kind of programs I'm referring to. For some, these are AA meetings. For others, it's Diversity Training on the job. For others, it's support groups at their place of worship. And to still others, it's the personal effectiveness work popularized by people such as Dr. Stephen Covey in his landmark book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

For those who are angry at the influence big business has on politics, well, big business knows a lot about how to get people from different cultures to work together. (One secret: everyone shares the same overall goals, even if they are working on different parts of what it takes to achieve those larger goals.) So, this initiative would be a way the business world could contribute something positive to how politics across America works, rather than just focusing on lobbying for their own special interests.

President Obama could even enlist the help of certain celebrities to encourage this new behavior.

Just as the President's Council on Physical Fitness always historically included famous fitness experts and athletic heroes, just as Hollywood's First Motion Picture Unit helped the American people learn what they needed to learn to win WWII, an effort to help teach the principles of living in a collaborative culture could be led by a cross-section of Hollywood celebrities and leaders in the field of personal and sociological development.

This initiative could operate under a newly constituted President's Council on Legislative Effectiveness, which would combine the spirit of the President's Council on Physical Fitness with the organizational effectiveness principles championed by the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Program (which President Reagan launched in 1988). Now, if you think this idea is crazy (or just really unreasonable), here's a clip of one of Hollywood's most popular figures talking about just such a collaborative vision for America:

While this clip is about 10 years old, I have a feeling that Tom Hanks would be happy to help America do this if he were asked. Don't you?

And -- given Tom's love of the space program -- I've just discovered that former Astronaut Ed Gibson (who worked with Tom on the movie Apollo 13) does motivational speeches on the subject. I'm happy to see that a legacy of the space program is that there are real American heroes who are willing to help motivate us to discover that we have the right stuff to do what needs to be done to make our country work.

I'm looking forward to President Obama's speech Wednesday night. That morning, he'll be speaking at Walter Cronkite's public memorial. I think this will help him get in the mood for telling Congress -- and the rest of us -- "the way it is:" and the way it can be, if we work together to transform our culture.

We can become the "one America" we've been aiming to be since the authors of the Declaration of Independence ended that document with the sentence...

And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.