By Steve Klinger
I’ve been watching with a buttoned lip as Obama has had a town hall meeting with half the country and still found time to appear on every news show plus Colbert. I’ve watched him extend an olive branch to Republicans, sweet-talk blue dog Democrats and provide a collegiate lecture on everything from fiscal policy to health care. Every day I am thankful that we dodged the McCain Express and have a president who thinks rationally, solicits advice, considers alternatives and expresses reasons for at least some of his decisions. I remain convinced that Obama cares about ordinary Americans and believes in his heart he is doing his best by them.
I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon of critics who will never be satisfied with anything short of absolute pacifism and total, instant redistribution of wealth, or the doomsayers who continue to predict societal collapse on a daily basis.
But all that said….don’t you miss Dubya the gunslinger even a little bit? There’s something about having a president swagger up to the podium, plant his hands on his hips and say, “I’m the decider!” that fills the belly with gross comfort, like eating a pound of chile cheese fries, even if you know they’ll do you in.
Of course, the kinds of things Bush decided almost destroyed civilization. Most of Obama’s problem is that he has inherited Bush’s infernal mess. But that’s not my point.
I am increasingly starting to believe that Obama underestimates himself. He needs to think back to LBJ and across the spam of generations to his role model, Lincoln. When he’s tempted to compromise on health care and back away from a public option (not to mention the single payer approach he knows in his heart is best), or when he pushes a watered down energy bill that perpetuates the coal industry, he needs to remember his own miraculous election campaign.
The man has public opinion on his side. His charisma (Republicans excepted, of course) is unparalleled in recent political history. He has science and history on his side to support arguments for stronger positions on global warming, against big banks and insurance companies, etc. He has the example of eight years of catastrophic failure by the very forces who oppose him now.
You can argue all you want that the votes aren’t there, that it’s all he can do to get weak legislation through because conservative Democrats and obstructionist Republicans – all bought and paid for by the obscene power of the corporate lobbyists – just won’t support progressive change. And it’s true from a certain perspective: mathematically, the votes aren’t there now indeed. But they weren’t there in 1965 either, when Lyndon Johnson hammered through civil rights legislation and Medicare, lacking even a shred of Obama’s personal appeal but knowing he held the high moral ground — and he could use his leverage as president to twist arms in Congress and win votes one by one. They weren’t there a century earlier when Lincoln determined he had to free the slaves to save the Union and then wage a war to restore it. And they weren’t there in 1933 when FDR envisioned the New Deal that produced the CCC, the WPA and Social Security.
I was resigned to the expediency of passing the wimpy energy/climate bill currently before Congress until I read Dennis Kucinich’s withering analysis of its shortcomings – on coal, on compromised timelines for greenhouse gas reductions, on all the pulled punches that undermine the good intentions of the original legislation. Even then, ordinary logic tells me a weak bill is better than none at all.
But are those really the alternatives when a leader as unique as Obama has the bully pulpit at his disposal and public approval ratings in the mid-70s? Just as he came from nowhere to beat a field of strong candidates, he has that rare capacity to captivate public imagination and support as chief executive, if he chooses to use it and does so with passion and conviction. Only his fear of failure can hold him back.
Ironically, and he’s way too smart not to realize this, it’s his lowered sights and his readiness to compromise that will likely produce failure in the longterm and provide the forces on the right with an avenue to regain power.
I’m not sure what tactics will best get his attention, though I can think of a few things I’d say to him at a town hall meeting. But I do know that those of us at the grassroots level must not buy into the conventional wisdom that compromise is better than gridlock. It’s a false equation, because strong leadership can change the dynamic and break the gridlock.
We must find a way to hold Obama’s feet to the fire on the crucial issues of global warming, health care, financial reform, nuclear disarmament and an end to empire building. But first we must reawaken his belief that together we can accomplish the change we know is desperately needed.