The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

The Voice Of A Reluctant General: Why Obama Can (and Should) Win a Second Term

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Rick Santorum. The former Senator from Pennsylvania is a leader and a darling of the Christian right. He is a vocal and committed homophobe who has called gay relationships analogous to “man on dog.” He supports an amendment to the U.S. Constitution “to protect the holy sacrament of marriage from those who would legalize same-sex ‘marriage.’” Mere weeks ago he was polling in the single digits. But as of Tuesday night’s Iowa caucus, Rick Santorum is (at least for now) the Republican party’s new “It” boy, trailing Mitt Romney  for the party’s nomination by eight stinking votes.

For the last year, the 2012 race for the Republican nomination has seemed more Reality TV than…well, actually real. But unfortunately, this contest is real: one of these candidates will run against Barak Obama in less than twelve months. With that in mind, it might be useful to step back from Iowa’s Tuesday night freak show, and look with a wider perspective at the upcoming November election.

Even before last night’s contest, I looked back at 2008 with tremendous nostalgia. I especially remember our family gathering around the television to watch Barak Obama’s victory speech on election night. Our then five year old son Nicholas stayed up way past bed time to be a part of this historic moment. No less poignant for me were Obama’s earlier primary wins in states like Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. I was born in 1966. I can only imagine what would have happened had an African American dared to campaign for president (or virtually any elected office) below the Mason Dixon line during America’s civil rights era. Yet here was Obama, 42 years later, winning by inspiring and decisive margins, achieving what a mere generation earlier had seemed a distant, and perhaps impossible, dream.

Candidate Obama was a remarkable figure of clarity and inspiration. What happened to him? His famed rhetorical brilliance seemed to disappear on the very day he was sworn in. The Marc Anthony of Chicago somehow transmogrified into the Brutus of D.C., the persuasive verse of the candidate almost instantly diminishing into the pedantic prose of a mere office holder.

Effective presidents are not always great speechmakers. Neither Truman nor LBJ were known for the rhetorical gifts of their predecessors. But they were plain spoken Democrats who employed blunt powers of speech to fight, hard when necessary, to put through policies which some members of congress and the public were not quite ready to embrace.

But these are different times. And perhaps it’s not really fair to compare Obama to other presidents. And the demands of the office are hard, so incredibly hard. And of course, the romance of the campaign will always seem sweet when followed by the compromise required by the marriage of governance.

But the American economy is still in a shambles. The current 8.6% unemployment rate tells only a fraction of the story. According to the U.S. Census bureau, over 47 million (one in six) Americans are now living below the poverty line, which is $22,400 per year for a family of four. (For more on this, read Francis Fox Piven’s excellent article at http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175463). 1 in 5 of our children are members of those families. And the infamous 1%? They possess 34.6 percent of all the private wealth in America. (Source: http://www.thenation.com/article/164434/war-against-poor).

Argue, as some do, that the president is not solely responsible for fixing a broken economy. (In 1992, Republicans did argue that on behalf of President George H.W. Bush). And to his credit, Barak Obama, who inherited the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, took immediate action at the beginning of his administration with a massive, billion dollar stimulus package. Sure, he could have pushed harder for a larger bill, but he finally got one through, and any massive government shot in the arm would have been unthinkable with a Republican sitting in the oval office.

But in the midst of a bleak economy, Obama is still our president. He may not deserve all of the blame. But he certainly bears much of the responsibility.

As it stands today, Americans are almost evenly divided on Obama’s performance: 45% disapproving vs. 41% approving. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/113980/gallup-daily-obama-job-approval.aspx) This ambivalence stems not so much from the success or failure of one policy or another. It may not even rest entirely upon our faltering economy. (I’d like to think that it’s at least partially caused by Obama’s appalling record on worldwide indefinite detention, which I’ll discuss later). No, I suspect that America’s real issue with our 44th president comes from his puzzling indifference, and even disinclination, to shape and move the public opinion.

It is a skill that was mastered with dazzling success by FDR and Ronald Reagan, the two most influential and transformational presidents of America’s last century. Both instinctively grasped the public’s need to hear and understand a solution before rallying behind it. Each man also understood his own responsibility to articulate those solutions simply, clearly, and frequently. Roosevelt and Reagan both used their astonishing powers of persuasion to reshape the way voters understood the government’s role in American life. Roosevelt reversed course in the1930s; Reagan turned it all the way back around in the 1980s. And each molded, with varying degrees of success, the mechanics of government in accordance with his own particular vision.

Candidate Obama seemed poised to follow in their footsteps. Indeed, with every chief executive since Reagan calling for less government, it seemed as if we were ready for another great president: charismatic, persuasive, and ready to take big risks in a time when they were most needed.

But Obama’s transformational moment was his change from Candidate to President. Starting from his inaugural address, he took on the personae of a caring, but somehow testy and impatient father, rebuking and scolding his children for failing to see the bigger picture:

“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Well, no one can argue with that. But compare it with the manner in which Reagan seized his first inaugural moment:

“We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look…Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God. “

Reagan followed that speech by doing everything in his power to rip apart FDR’s New Deal. But The Gipper owed a tremendous debt to Roosevelt (a man whom he’d earlier idolized) when it came to communicating with the public. The phrase, “we have nothing to fear but fear it self,” is now a cliché. But in 1933 a desperate America heard its president say those words for the very first time. That inaugural address was his crucial first step in selling The New Deal. The rhetoric was less folksy and personable than Reagan’s, but no less effective or direct:

“With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems…The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.”

Must a president (or his speech writer) be a master of rhetoric in order to achieve greatness? Maybe not. But it sure doesn’t hurt. Governing, like marriage, requires communication. This is where Roosevelt and Reagan were unstoppable: both brilliantly employed the media to talk directly to the American people and ask for their help. “Hey! You know all that money you have stuffed under your mattress? Gather it up and put it in the bank that the government just insured!” “America, I have this pain in the ass Democratic congress that I have to deal with. Could you please write your representative a letter and tell him you want lower taxes?” What president since Reagan has appeared on television and directly asked the voters to take action? Other than a post 9/11 plea from W to go out and shop more, I can’t think of any. President Obama has an excellent voice. I’d like to hear it more often.

But our current president’s problems aren’t limited to style. Let’s say that during Obama’s first year he had appeared on television and appealed directly to the public. What would he have asked for? “My fellow Americans, I would like you to write to congress and ask for immediate passage of the health care initiative. What’s in the bill? Well, I’m leaving that up to congress. Me? I’m pretty flexible regarding its contents; everyone needs a voice here, and I’m sure that we’ll all find a compromise. So just tell your congressperson to pick himself up, dust himself off, and hurry up to get that bill written so we can get this sucker through.”

Roosevelt’s army knew where to march because the general gave them direction. The many parts of the New Deal adhered to one basic principle: the government’s job is to protect the people, and help them when they are in trouble. Reagan decided to march his troops in the opposite direction: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government IS the problem.”

Obama was right to pitch his tent in the midst of America’s staggering healthcare crisis. His tragic mistake was not writing the bill himself. The opportunity for a big risk to pay off was huge: he might have demanded the public option, or even (dare I say it?) single payer. Obama had every opportunity to take it to the American people like this: “See this bill? It ensures that the next time you or a member of your family gets sick, you will receive excellent medical treatment no matter what, and you will get it without having to go bankrupt. Now please, ignore the hysteria, pick up the phone, contact congress, and tell them to pass this bill. Now.”

It would have been hard. And it might have been bloody. But by entering the battle in a spirit of compromise, Obama allowed the Republican minority to frame the debate, tragically ceding the populist mantle to the vitriolic Tea Party. A general does not ask for his troops’ permission; he picks a direction and tells them where to march.

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By focusing on our president’s shortcomings, I have ignored his considerable achievements. (Apologies to George Clooney.) And Obama’s accomplishments are considerable and impressive. He repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”. When nominating Supreme Court justices, he thankfully passed over Hermann Goering.  But in sizing up the current political climate, it is not enough to defend Obama. We must also perform a frank and sober assessment of those who would replace him: the cast of Tuesday night’s nail biter Republican caucus.

What can we say about this motley crew? It’s striking how many liberals are following the Republican primary unusual attention and delight. Why? Maybe it’s the sheer bizarreness and absolute unbelievability of this morbid and surreal spectacle. Did Rick Perry really just say “oops”? Whoa, is that really Michelle Bachman’s husband? Are we really watching Herman Cain’s campaign commercial, or is that a Daily Show spot? Wait, is “man on dog” Rick Santorum really “surging from behind” (will the media please stop using that phrase?) to just barely come in second? No, seriously. Is this really, really happening?

Yes, America. This is really, really happening. A serious presidential candidate has in fact called Kim Jong Il “Kim Jong the Second.” Mitt Romney did in fact say that “corporations are people”. Newt Gingrich advocates replacing unionized school janitors with teenagers (most of whom can’t be counted on to clean up their own rooms, let alone an entire school). Ron Paul has the audacity to call himself a champion of individual liberty while joining his colleagues in an all out attack on women’s reproductive rights. And Rick Santorum has compared homosexuality to bestiality and child molestation.

America is full of sane, reasonable, rational, thoughtful, and introspective Republicans. Too bad none of them are running for president. The candidates have their differences. But does it really matter who wins the nomination? Come November, you will have a choice between Barak Obama and a candidate almost entirely beholden to his or her party’s right wing. Count on the Republican candidate to work long and hard to finally smash Roe v. Wade to bits. Given the opportunity, Obama’s opponent will tip the Supreme Court even further to the right. And once in the oval office, that Republican will rip apart whatever is left of America’s fragile safety net. It won’t matter if that person is a Mormon, Catholic, or Protestant Evangelical. When the sun goes down, these candidates all pray to the same God: the Almighty Free Market, and their talismanic belief borders on the Medieval.

And it will not matter how many Americans are unemployed. It will not matter how many children live and die in poverty. It will not matter how many small businesses fail. It will not matter how many Americans become sick due to lack of health insurance, or lose their homes because they can not pay their rent or mortgage.

No matter how bad it gets, none of that will mater. Because the answer will always be the same. Cut government. Cut regulations. Cut taxes for the nation’s wealthiest citizens and corporations. Cut, cut, cut until there’s nothing left to cut, and then cut some more. “Fiscal conservatives” call it “starving the beast.” Well, at least they got the starving part right.

And I haven’t even addressed foreign policy. Obama’s would be competitors are giving it short shrift as well. That’s because (with some exceptions), our commander in chief looks and acts the part of a Republican. He didn’t put on a flight jacket or land on an aircraft carrier, but he did locate and direct the assassination of Osama bin Laden (a job that his tough talkin’ predecessor was “truly…not that concerned about.”) He also tragically reneged on his commitment to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And on the day of the Iowa caucus, President Obama, to America’s great shame, signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law (http://www.aclu.org/national-security/president-obama-signs-indefinite-detention-bill-law), legalizing and legitimizing the inhumane practice of indefinite detentions throughout the world. It’s a day that will live in infamy.

But look at the alternatives. Would a Republican president have done any different? Or would he have gone further? That same president would have likely continued the war in Iraq, rather than pull U.S. troops out. Liberals and conservatives, doves and hawks, let’s put aside our differences for a moment and ask: are any of us really prepared to hand over the reigns of foreign policy to the likes of Romney, Paul or Santorum?

No. Barak Obama can, and should, win a second term. He is a smart and disciplined man who takes his job seriously. He is the most qualified candidate. And, perhaps most importantly, he understands that the Almighty Free Market, like anything else, has its limits, and may only be stretched so far.

A second term Obama will cast his eye not towards re-election, but the history books. They’ll be a lot more kind if he acts like a general and chooses a field of battle. (Let me be clear: I mean a figurative, domestic field of battle, not a real, foreign one). The history books will also be kind if he finds Obama way to repeal the NDAA, an action that every progressive must work to persuade the president to perform.

If re-elected, how could Obama’s second term be better than his first? Well, he could start by demanding (with legal action if necessary) that America’s mega corporations like General Electric do their fair share and pay their taxes. All of them. Those proceeds could start funding a major, exciting new economic initiative like an Education Stimulus Package. I would love to see the Republicans in congress gripe about raising the pay of teachers, administrators, and custodians (sorry, Newt!), and hiring new ones to reduce the obscene and unmanageable size of our public classrooms. While congress bickers, Obama could make a tour of our red and blue states to meet with America’s overworked, underpaid educators. Imagine those teachers (employed and out of work) standing beside our president while telling their inspirational and heartbreaking stories. Obama was himself an educator from 1992 to 2004. I wonder if a project like this might help our reluctant general once again find his inspiring voice, use it to summon his army, and lead our march to the very halls of congress.

Does the whole thing sound impossible? Sure it does. But the miracle of 2008 was in Candidate Obama’s call on our audacity to hope. Given a direction, we marched to victory. Hope we did, and hope we may again.

But first, Obama has to win. Time for all of us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and follow our general (or push him, if necessary) to begin again the work of a disciplined attack upon our nation’s common problems.

David Berkson

1/3/12

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