Last week I attended President Obama's speech at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. I must admit to a twinge of jealousy as I noted the subtle placement of our rival's logo behind the half dozen American flags that made up the backdrop to the presidential podium.
Still, I was pleased that a private, residential, liberal arts college had been selected for an important presidential speech. After all, liberal arts colleges are uniquely American institutions. They provide our country with a competitive advantage with respect to economic vitality and democratic principles and they deserve the visibility that a presidential appearance affords.
In his extensive remarks on the economic future of the middle class, President Obama promised to solicit advice from those outside the inner circles of Washington, specifically mentioning college presidents as a good source for such advice. As I listened to our leader describe his ideas to an attentive audience of students, workers and retirees, I was impressed by the wonderfully democratic nature of the event. At the same time, I was distracted by the prospect of serving as a presidential adviser. In case the president doesn't get around to calling me soon, though, I'll use this forum to set forth my advice.
The face-to-face format worked well for you, Mr. President. In person you come across as human. When you looked a bit tired, it seemed like a reasonable state for someone who had traveled a long way to stand in front of me. When you came off as extravagant, it seemed like the promises of someone who wanted to reach out and give to a neighbor more than they can afford. When you appeared petty, it came across as an all-too-human response of someone frustrated by an inability to deliver on all promises. When you recognized friends in the audience, spoke of local problems, and responded on the fly to comments shouted from the audience it was easy to believe that we were listening to a leader who understood representative democracy. You and your rivals would be well suited to spend more time talking directly to us. But, don't waste those opportunities with personal attacks on those back in Washington.
Although I consider myself an optimistic skeptic, it is hard for me to get excited about your promises of a booming economy in the fifth year of what we all hoped was a four-year recovery plan. Nevertheless, you were persuasive in Galesburg and I found myself listening with enthusiasm. But that excitement slipped away when you wasted time criticizing those who disagree with you. I know that political opposition is attempting to thwart your plans; you don't need to waste time and dignity with pointed attacks. The leaders of the opposition weren't present, and given the disconnect between what you said and their public response to your speech, it doesn't appear that they were listening. Even had they been listening, your words were more likely to inflame than persuade.
Our students tell me that one of the most important lessons at Monmouth College is that there is much to learn from those whose opinions initially seem unreasonable. A popular phrase on our campus last year was "sympathetic imagination." Our students picked it up from a convocation address by John Churchill of Phi Beta Kappa who described it as one of the most desirable outcomes of a liberal arts education. I was impressed by how well you related to those with a less fortunate economic situation than your own. Clearly, you have a sympathetic imagination. I encourage you to apply it to those who are seemingly a thorn in your side. Imagine what troubles your opponents, make them human, and then try to become human to them.
In the arena where I work, you can win an argument on some days and solve a problem on others, but rarely can you do both on the same day. Speaking at the site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, you seemed more interested in winning an argument than in solving problems. I hope you will think about how much more impressed we would be if you lost more debates while solving more problems.
President Obama, I was able to experience your speech thanks to a generous invitation from the president of a competing institution. While President Amott and I work with separate teams, each trying to persuade students that our college is the better institution, the work Monmouth College shares with Knox is more important than our areas of difference, considerable as they may seem on some days. I suspect the same is true of rivals in Washington, D.C.