One year ago, Barack Obama was elected captain of the Titanic -- er, I mean, president of the United States.
It's an understandable slip. Last year, the waters seemed to be rising on all sides. The U.S. economy was a mess, and the government was rolling in debt. We were involved in quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as an open-ended "war on terror." Our image in the world was about as low as you could get. And if that wasn't bad enough, because of climate change the waters were quite literally rising all around us.
Many of us were rooting for the new president. But we also had a sneaking suspicion that, like other handsome leading man Leonardo DiCaprio, Obama might go down with the ship.
During the last year, the president rolled up his sleeves and got to work on the ship of state. He went down to the engine room to try to get the economic engine working again. He organized the infirmary staff to provide emergency health care to more of the ship's passengers. He tried to enlist the able-bodied in the necessary jobs of fixing the ship's infrastructure.
Many passengers have taken heart from the hard work of the new, sober captain. But others fear that he's done little more than rearrange the deckchairs. Columnist and economist Paul Krugman, for instance, is "pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama, who seems determined to confirm every doubt I and others ever had about whether he was ready to fight for what his supporters believed in." And indeed, if you look out the porthole, the situation still looks bleak: economic mess, unprecedented debt, climate change unabated, and that great sucking sound still coming from those quagmires.
Same shipwreck, different captain.
On Wednesday, our captain will address the passengers. Many of us still have that sinking feeling, particularly after the recent election in Massachusetts. What can the captain say to give us hope and believe in change once again?
First things first: The president has to change the metaphor. Titanic was so 1990s. Barack Obama needs a new blockbuster.
At his upcoming State of the Union, as I recently told Eleanor Clift of Newsweek and which she published in "Four Ways Obama Can Win Back Liberals", the president needs an Avatar Moment. He can't go with the same old, same old. He has to transform his presidency as profoundly as James Cameron has shaken up the movie industry with his film Avatar. He needs to reenergize his base, get people excited again.
Of course, it would be great if the president borrowed from the themes of Avatar as well. Just imagine if Obama announced that we were closing all overseas military bases because they wreaked havoc on indigenous people, that we were redirecting money from the military into a green economy that could prevent the Earth from becoming a lifeless rock, that we would stop ruthlessly extracting underground resources (unobtainium, oil) regardless of the consequences.
Oops, sorry, I was wearing those rose-colored 3D glasses. When I take them off, I see that Obama never was that radical, alas. Reports of the president's proposed three-year freeze on domestic programs -- without touching the Pentagon lockbox -- indicate just how Blue Dog he can be. How on earth does he think that such a freeze will get people excited again?
There's still time for Obama to change course. Within the tight navigational limits that he observes, here's what the president could do.
He should take the fear factor away from the tea-baggers by clearly identifying the great threats we face: unemployment, a broken health care system, crumbling infrastructure. He must steal their populist fire by singling out the bankers, insurance company executives, and unresponsive bureaucrats as the obstacles in our way. He must mobilize a wide range of resources -- public, private, Pentagon -- to address the threats and equalize the burden. He must reorient the debate by being bold, confident, and transformative. The Republicans under Bush didn't need a filibuster-proof Senate majority to run America into an iceberg, and Obama doesn't need one either to keep us all from drowning.
And foreign policy? Most Americans want their country to be a number-one box-office smash: rich, powerful, successful. It's not easy to sell them on modesty and restraint (as Jimmy Carter famously discovered). The president should at least focus on the Oscars that matter -- best economy, best health care system, best environmental standards -- rather than the dubious honors of heftiest military spending or number of overseas bases. It's not only Americans who worry about the health of this country. Billions of people who didn't vote in the U.S. elections are nonetheless affected by U.S. policies. They, too, have hopes and want change. The president should remember this global audience as he prepares his State of the Union address.
As with Avatar, the whole world is watching.
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