Thursday, November 4, 2010

Obama as Educator in Chief: Reflecting on the President's Mid Term Report:

An American President wears many hats--from cheerleader to commander in chief to substitute head of state, head of the Democratic party and also (by the way) leader of the free world. The list of roles is somewhat mind boggling and it is no wonder that the protean nature of the office leads to much glamorization by the world's media and a multitude of mostly bad Hollywood movies.  The role  President Obama seems to have played the most during his first two years in office was as chief legislative maverick with the roles of comforter in chief that FDR played so successfully and the role of pragmatic visionary that President Clinton played during his first term in office much in abeyance. Clearly the times called for some energy to be spent framing legislation and making the necessary deals whether it was to frame a credible stimulus bill while continuing to bail out the banks, developing a set of  sanctions that would hold up in the UN against Iran, working on energy legislation so he could support a progressive position on global warming at the Copenhagen global warming summit meeting, relaunching the Middle East peace talks, rescuing the Detroit auto industry, reconfiguring the strategy in Afghanistan and getting health care and financial reform passed, not to mention dealing with the BP oil leak crisis in the Gulf. There was no escaping the daily grind of figuring out where the proverbial votes, the incessant travel and the calls that needed to be taken from foreign leaders. He was more than busy and so not he had not much room for deeper reflections as to how this change was going down with Americans, many of whom were losing jobs and homes and a way of life they had learned to take for granted. During this period of intense work it is not surprising that Obama that had such a fine ear for the country's mood during his election campaign began to seem disconnected from the people who helped put him in office. It showed up first in his disappointingly vague and fragmented State of the Union speech and then later in more routine phone it in speeches and more obviously when he got off to a bad start as talked about the BP Oil spill and made few clear references to where he stood on key provisions in the health care bill. There were only routine statements that seemed to show his concern about the unemployed and his miserable lack of action concerning the hundreds of thousands of foreclosures while seeming to be content with only lukewarm measures against Wall Street's culture of excess. Perhaps we were asking too much--the task to govern a country that had fallen into such bad shape as the one that Obama found when he took office was too much for anyone--short perhaps of another FDR to successfully manage.

Slowly over this two year period, the largely young and optimistic electorate that had voted him in sensed during this time a disconnect between the man they thought they had voted for--fearless champion of the ordinary guy who would "fight" for them, sensed a feeling of betrayal and refused to come out in these mid terms in the numbers they had two years before. Now he faces not just a base that feels alienated from what might be called the "2008 Obama project" but a fiercely partisan attack from a far right wing group, that wants to channel the anger that unemployment and broken dreams can cause into a campaign to stop any progressive agenda from seeing the light and  simply wishes to kill Obama's re-election chances in 2012. The tea-party largely middle aged and white has begun to read the US Constitution in mystical ways as a justification for a limited form of federal government that pays only for the defense and their medical and social security benefits and leaves the rest to market forces. The federal governments' historic role in addressing what markets and states have failed to do over the years, that is to address issues of inequality, to repair gaps in the educational system and regulate commerce among other things is viewed as bordering on unamerican and unconstitutional. We are at a sad impasse in terms of the debate when an individual like Sarah Palin, putative leader of the Tea Party movement, who is so fiercely proud of her anti-intellectualism,  can claim some political legitimacy and even be considered as a future presidential candidate.

The festering of large segments of the American right into a quasi religious group of zealots who want to turn their backs on the modern world, on all the pressing forces of globalization and burrow deep into a world of fantasy is not good news for a country that hopes to maintain leadership in the 21st century. Whether any of the scale and size of the backlash against perceived Obama's over-reaching could have been avoided if the President had managed to find his governing rather than his campaigning voice is open to speculation. But as all this slips into the past we need to focus on what Obama should do in the last two years of his Presidency. Among the many roles he could choose to play and fate and events will allow him to play he should consider the one of Educator in Chief. He needs to explain to the electorate both his own side and the majority of independents who during this last election season swayed towards the Republican side, what the choices are in plain and simple terms.  Obama needs to be the educator-in-chief leading a national discussion as serious as the Lincoln Douglas debates about slavery, concerning the US place in the modern world. Within that theme we can debate what is the right role for the US government  to play at home and abroad (given the close of the cold war and the rise of terrorism--it makes no sense that we fund so many aircraft carriers and jet fighters when the threat is mostly coming from failed and failing states like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran) what is the right size of the federal government, a discussion about how large deficits can be in the middle of recession as well as  the dangers of making that recession worse by cutting the spending of the only entity that can spend during a recession, and what is the future of trade policy when so many areas in the middle west (many of which voted Republican in sheer frustration this recession) have been devastated. What do 21st century jobs look like, what does an energy policy look like that reduces green house gases, makes us less dependent on foreign oil and helps American exports, what kinds of investments in green energy and education do we need to make if we are to secure them? Many of the Tea-party candidates who will be going to Washington this January to be sworn into office will only have a dim idea of many of these issues, and need to be woken up so they don't end up during their time in Congress simply reciting demagogic talking points. Why does Obama need to lead this effort? For the simple reason that the media has no real staying power when it comes to following these issues or seriously educating anyone about them since they are now convinced that kind of programming is reserved for C-Span while they trade in sound bites by a partisan punditocracy. If the President were to lead a series of town hall debates where opponents of his policy could come forward and be heard and where there would be an agreement to have follow up on the areas where compromise is possible--the American public if not a more global audience would be riveted. The priority should be on making the core ideas related to our 21st century world as clear as glass to everyone and why he wants to take the country in the direction he does based on his analysis of that world. In this way those who seek to use these times to scare and confuse people are marginalized and we use all our modern technology not to keep "amusing ourselves to death" as Neil Postman once memorably put it, but to learn from our fellow human beings who after all share our planet.  The President's men would turn this role down I am reasonably sure, fearing he would be satirized as Professor in Chief and the anti-intellectual crowds will portray him as an ivy league elitist. The danger exists. The way to counter that danger is first for Obama to do what too many professors often fail to do, make the ideas concrete and clear and provide good examples, to be talking and discussing these ideas not just with academics but with managers, workers, technical experts and the like, secondly to be seen to be willing to use his energy and intellect to work with the opposition to forge compromise positions. If he finds he cannot afford to compromise he must then clearly explain why. What is the alternative? Does Obama or his advisers think for one second that by compromising with the Republican on their sacred cows such as tax cuts that he can find a way to get re-elected? He must also know they intend to block every piece of legislation however constructive and thoughtful it might be and use his failure to pass legislation as yet another reason to vote him out in 2012. The President cannot  truly draw out the venom of the attack by the right wing or its  overwhelming negativity out by failing to engage. He must assert the new role, own it and as he does make more of us understand that politics is not some other version of show business played as they say by ugly people, not a game but a serious effort to define who we are now as a people and into the future.

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