09/04/2012 09:19 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

President Obama's Second Chance

On Clint Eastwood's ill-conceived empty chair, in prime time, in front of what is left of the national TV audience President Obama was handed a second chance. There is a thin line between satire and disrespect, and the line has been difficult to find in recent years, but amidst the lies and deceptions of the Republican National Convention, Clint managed to find it and cross it. This talented actor and filmmaker seemed to forget his high school civics. In this country, our president is both the head of the government and the head of state. He is both prime minister and king. Insult the president as head of government all you want, but insult the presidency and you are denigrating the nation and the flag. Anne Romney and the rest of the family sitting in the sky-box knew that line had been breached. Moreover, the post-convention impact of Clint's rant made everyone forget about the convention's carefully calibrated message. Clint's empty chair replaced Mitt's empty suit, creating an opportunity for the president to re-state his case to anyone still listening.

The nastiness of this political season is not without precedent, but its amplification due to the combination of Super PAC money and the Internet is something new and unprecedented. My prediction is that with the exception of parts of the Democratic Convention and the debates, Americans will focus more on the pennant race than the presidential race this October. The public will turn off politics even more than usual. It's going to be like those horrible anti-smoking ads they insist on putting on local TV -- the ones that show the disgusting results of smoking up close and personal. I don't know about you, but I flip the channel the minute they come on. Political ads will suffer the same fate.

The Obama caricature presented by the Republicans at their convention was almost as fictitious as the exercise in sensitivity fraud that formed the other half of the circus in Tampa. Yes, the economy has not fully recovered. That is because the Republican-controlled House and the filibuster-prone Senate refused to act after the banks were bailed out under Bush and the stimulus was enacted by the then Democratic-controlled Congress. On the other hand, the economic free fall begun by the underfinanced Bush wars and the unregulated markets in housing and on Wall Street was stopped and turned around by the Obama administration. The second Great Depression was avoided.

The difference between the first Great Depression and the Great Recession we are struggling to leave is the social safety net the Republicans are determined to dismantle. I mean privatize. The reason we do not have the massive hunger and misery in America that we saw during the 1930s is because we have programs like unemployment insurance, food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, subsidized housing, free breakfast and lunch in our schools and welfare-to-work programs. The social safety net of the New Deal and the Great Society has survived three decades of attacks from Ronald Reagan to Paul Ryan. They survive because, for all their imperfections, they work and Americans know they are needed. We do not want to see children or the elderly in rags begging on the streets.

Capitalism, which is a wonderful system for creating wealth, new products and improving our quality of life, has two flaws that are easy to fix. One is the boom and bust cycle that causes recessions in the first place. The second is that along with winners it leaves behind some losers. We have the Fed and other mechanisms to smooth out the boom and bust cycle and we have the social safety net to protect the poor. The purpose of the safety net is to put a floor beneath those that lose, and to provide their children with the opportunity to win. The safety net could work a lot better, but it needs to be reformed with great care.

The period of extreme conservatism in American politics has resulted in the reduction of the middle class and a crisis of income distribution. This is not an argument for socialism; some of the economies in Europe tell us what happens when the incentive to work is reduced. We need a balance between compassion and competition -- we need to encourage work while taking care of those who are unable to succeed. We also need to generate enough tax revenue to fund infrastructure, education, research, public safety, effective regulation and the social safety net.

Capitalism does a lot but it does not do everything. For all the talk of family, religion and community we heard at the Republican convention, the invisible creature at the Republican convention seemed to be government itself: the teachers, sanitation workers, cops, firefighters, policy analysts and even the administrators that make our government and its programs work. Government has become a barely tolerated necessary evil. Public service, of the type called for by John F. Kennedy, is an inconvenient reality swept under the rug.

Which brings me to President Obama and his second chance. While it is clear that the president made his share of mistakes during his first term, I think he should be given credit for some important accomplishments. The slow pace of our economic recovery is the main reason his reelection is even in doubt. Fortunately for him, the economy is moving slowly in the right direction, and even more fortunately for him, the Republicans have nominated a team that is radically out of step with the American mainstream. It is not just the Republican platform positions on economic and safety net issues. On issues such as abortion, gay rights, and the social and cultural touchstones that define contemporary American society, Obama seems mainstream and Romney seems weird. Obama seems real, and Romney looks like an android on Star Trek.

So here's Obama's opening and opportunity. America just got a full dose of baloney, out-of-step weirdness and lies. The president and his party must do the opposite. We don't need a song and dance about how everything's great because of President Obama. It's not morning in America. Everything is not awful, but we have big challenges ahead and we need a realistic leader, in touch with reality but still willing to talk about hope and vision. President Obama has a second chance, because the Republicans have handed him a weak, inauthentic, out of touch opponent. Let's see a president who rolls up his sleeves, admits some mistakes, shows real leadership and gets us moving on addressing the challenges before us.