11/04/2012 08:54 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Quick Fixes in Life and Politics

As the presidential campaign finally comes to its inevitable finish line, I've been thinking about quick fixes in American society. Many people in our society are impatient. We don't like standing in line. We don't like traffic jams. We don't like trains, buses or trains that are late. If the power goes out, as it did for more than 8 million people during Hurricane Sandy, we want it fixed immediately. We don't like medical, social or political problems that linger.

Given the social context of impatience, we have one presidential candidate, Governor Mitt Romney, who promises us a quick fix to our economic and social problems. Trust me, Mr. Romney is saying, because I have a plan, the details of which remain unknown, that will restore 12 million American jobs in four years. Given the impatient nature of our society, such a quick fix has wide ranging appeal. We all want a better life and a better society and if we can achieve these goals -- quickly and without pain or struggle -- that's a good deal. Indeed, millions of Americans appear to believe in Mr. Romney's mysterious plan for a quick fix.

President Obama, however, has never promised us a quick fix. He took office during an almost unparalleled economic meltdown and his policies are slowly beginning to turn around the American economy. His program seeks not only to stabilize our economy but prepare it for the future. Such important work takes time. In essence, the result of the 2012 election will ultimately depend on questions of trust and patience. Will the proposed quick fix make things better -- or worse?

In my life I know a thing or two about quick fixes. When I did fieldwork among the Songhay people in the Republic of Niger, the elders there liked to criticize my youthful impatience. They routinely said that it would take me a lifetime to learn the whys and wherefores of their culture.

"Life," they liked to say, "is patience."

I didn't fully understand the wisdom of this adage until many years later, when my father decided to have back surgery. Suffering for many years from scoliosis, he no longer wanted to live with continuous pain. Despite suggestions from family members, he refused message therapy did not take yoga classes and saw no benefit in acupuncture, which meant that he didn't give himself the chance to see if those activities might gradually ease his pain. Despite his advanced age and his kidney condition, he steadfastly believed that surgery would be a quick fix for his pain. Tragically, he died from complications following the back surgery. He died from a quick fix.

When I learned in 2001 that I had cancer, I too wanted a quick fix. Who wouldn't want a quick fix from cancer? Wasn't there a pill or a procedure that would just make it disappear -- without pain or suffering? My oncologist calmly and quickly disabused me of any such belief. He outlined a long, difficult and, yes, painful regimen of chemotherapy. In chemotherapy you drip poison into the body to make it better and stronger, but it usually does not result in a cure. At the end of a course of cancer treatment, in fact, most patients enter the netherworld of remission. You are no longer "sick" but are told that the cancer might very well return. In such a state, you are somewhere between health and illness. When it comes to cancer, quick fixes become irrelevant. They are quickly replaced by dignified resolve and a profound resilience.

In the face of serious illness, life is patience.

The same wisdom can be applied to politics. Most non-partisan economists and even the editorial board of the politically right of center Economist believe that Mr. Romney's economic quick fixes will not work. If they are put into effect, ideas designed as a rapid and pain-free solution to our woes are likely to have the opposite impact -- the inexorable spread of needless economic and social suffering.

President Obama talks to the American people in much the same way as my oncologist talks to me. We have made progress, but there is much more we have to do. Like cancer, our problems are complex. Like cancer, they require long-term solutions and an investments in the future. Indeed, President Obama understands that there are no quick fixes to our economic and social problems.

If we are impatient and vote for Mr. Romney and his quick fix, our shortsightedness will condemn us to repeat and relive the mistakes of our recent past. If we reject the snake oil salesmanship of the quick fix and opt for Mr. Obama's unsentimental reasonableness, his dignified resolve and his profound resilience, we'll follow an uncluttered path leading to a socially just and economically robust 21st century.

In the face of serious social and economic problems, life is patience, and President Obama has the intelligence and foresight to meet the challenges of the future. A vote for him on November 6 moves us away from the past and propels us toward the future.