Monday, July 25, 2011

Prosperity Is Just Around the Corner

I am a concerned American.

I am concerned for many reasons, and I have been concerned for a long time. The debt ceiling crisis that is consuming so much time and energy is an additional concern that no one really needs.

I know I don't need it. It's just more stress for me.

That stress level wasn't eased by the tenor of the debate over the debt ceiling that played out on TV tonight.

Now, if you read this blog on even a semi–regular basis, you know that I don't always agree with Barack Obama. In fact, I have frequently disagreed with him — and, although you may not realize it, that is a source of considerable anxiety for me.

I have struggled with this because, as I have said before, I was brought up by parents who were Democrats. And there have been times when I have given this president the benefit of the doubt — in no small part because I understand, at least instinctively, his objective.

But I have had nagging doubts about his leadership from the start — and much of it, I think, has stemmed from the fact that Obama doesn't stay focused on anything for very long. Sometimes, I have wondered if he has undiagnosed attention deficit disorder.

For awhile, I felt my doubts might have been misplaced. Obama came into office and made what appeared to be bold moves that were designed to put people back to work and really fix the economy.

But that is what was misleading.

It wasn't long before his focus shifted to other things — and, ever since, I have felt increasingly uneasy about the way that Obama and his followers rely on racism and Republican obstructionism as excuses for why they can't do things.

They get mired in the blame game, and they whine about the rigidity of the opposition. They act as if this is something new in American politics, but it isn't.

I'll admit that the opposition to Obama is more extreme, more polarized than ever before in my experience — just as his support is more polarized in the other direction. Obviously, it is more difficult to bring these two sides together than ever before.

But that is not an excuse.

Successful presidents learn to use the "bully pulpit," as Teddy Roosevelt called it. Mobilizing public opinion — in fact, using it pre–emptively — is a big part of presidential leadership.

Obama and his supporters have been correct when they have pointed out that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all lobbied for — and got — higher debt ceilings. They understood how critical it was for a president to mobilize public opinion if he was going to come out ahead in any significant negotiation.

To mobilize the public, a president must empathize with people's problems — "feel their pain," in Clinton's words — and that has been a problem for Obama. Do you recall the exchange last year between Obama and the middle–class black woman who told him, at a town meeting, that she was worn out defending him while she saw her standard of living deteriorate?

Obama used the opportunity to polish his campaign pitch, spoke of achievements that had no real bearing on the woman's situation as she had described it (but would clearly appeal to select segments of the electorate) and wrapped up his answer with a Reaganesque "stay the course" message.

He never thanked that woman for her support nor did he ask her any questions that were intended to find out more about her situation so he could address issues that directly affected her. In fact, he showed very little interest in her concerns. He was far more interested in promoting what he saw as his administration's achievements — perhaps with an eye to the approaching midterms but almost certainly with his re–election bid (which he announced about six months later) in mind.

"Stay the course" doesn't tend to mean much to people who have been out of work for a year or more and can't see any improvement that affects them. It tends to sound like "Prosperity is just around the corner."

The case for that — and a lot of other things — would be better if Obama had shown himself to be a better negotiator, but he hasn't. He is almost always reactive, not proactive.

That isn't leadership, and it's been an issue on just about every domestic and international matter that has come up in this president's term.

But, in the interest of brevity, let's just look at the debate on the debt ceiling for a minute.

When Obama agreed to the extension of the Bush tax cuts last year, why didn't he do so on the condition that the debt ceiling would be raised at the same time?

I've heard Obama supporters argue (and justifiably) that the Bush tax cuts expanded the deficit considerably. Republicans wanted those tax cuts, though, and my guess is they would have been willing to make a deal.

The time to cut such a deal passed long ago, though. I don't know why, but, like most of the opportunities that were presented to Obama and the Democrat–controlled Congress in 2009 and 2010, it was allowed to slip away.

It remains to be seen whether the two sides can work out a deal in a week.

Frankly, it's more drama than I need right now.

No comments: