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Can Obama Be Reached?

August 16th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I can’t tell you how many columns and blog entries I’ve read about the problems of the Obama administration and why we’re not getting the Change he said he would deliver, but the one I read on the Huffington Post yesterday by Steven G. Brant really stood out as one of the most all-encompassing and insightful.

It’s a bit lengthy for an online column but if you have 10-15 minutes to spare I’d highly recommend reading the entire essay.

The piece is essentially about the mind-set within the White House today, which became visible last week when Robert Gibbs insulted the “professional left”, basically saying that they want too much change and should be happy with what they get. Weber outlines the major problems facing the country, explains that their extraordinary magnitude requires far more than what is being done to address them, and asserts that the current media environment stands in the way of real progress.

With that set of problems and in that kind of media environment, what I see is an Obama Administration devoted to making things look and sound good rather than actually making them good.

The biggest danger of this kind of thinking (of, essentially, believing your own PR) is that you stop being willing to learn anything new that doesn’t fit your existing mindset. You take in new data that agrees with your mental model and eliminate the rest.

The problem in the Obama White House is that he’s surrounded himself with Washington insiders and establishment folks. Rahm Emanuel, Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, et al are not progressives and are not interested in implementing the kinds of real, fundamental changes we need. Obama himself may be a liberal at heart but he hasn’t been governing like a liberal, and the contempt that those in his inner circle have openly showed for liberals may have rubbed off on Obama.

And he also doesn’t seem to realize that what would have finished the job of healing the nation would have been to truly institute the course correction the American people knew was needed when they elected him. That would have been the Change that We Believed We Were Going To Get… change that produced real results. Attempting to negotiate with Republicans and failing time after time didn’t make anyone feel better, except those who want to keep the nation divided for purely political reasons.

Weber offers this excellent analogy for the current situation:

Put in more graphic terms, America is a patient that was wheeled into the Emergency Room in January of 2009, desperately in need of a team of skilled doctors to save its life. America’s life’s blood – a true accounting of its condition and required remedies – had been draining away at least since President Bush convinced the country to attack Iraq by using the 9/11 attack as justification for doing so.

I’d say that the bleeding began long before Bush, but it’s still an apt metaphor. The people who say we should just accept slow, incremental change don’t seem to recognize just how dire the situation is. America is a dying patient in need of drastic surgery by skilled professionals, but is instead merely being wrapped in bandages by a group of hospital orderlies.

Weber cites Al Gore’s book, The Assault on Reason, to make the case that the underlying problem is a media culture in which perception is more important than fact, and political power is not gained through skill or merit but by manipulating the American people.

Power gained through lies promulgated through disinformation campaigns is not power the Founding Fathers would say had been earned. The Founding Fathers were on the side of the angels. Those who would gain power through lies and celebrating ignorance and playing the victim as a virtue come from a very different place.

And if our civic culture dies, then America will disintegrate into a collection of warring tribes, each held together by their fear of “the other”… their fear of those who are different than they are… all operating under the grand, false belief that competition (not cooperation) is the natural order of things… the grand, false belief that “survival of the fittest” rules humanity as completely as it does the lowliest of creatures on Earth.

Regarding the steps that have been taken to address the enormous systemic problems facing us, Weber offers another spot-on analogy:

The quality of the legislation passed so far (health care, financial reform, stimulus package) is like the home built of straw in the story of The Three Little Pigs. It looks okay, but when the Big Bad Wolf comes along he has no trouble blowing it over. Two tries later (and with the pigs fortunately still alive), they finally build a house made of brick. And that house is able to withstand the wolf’s best efforts to blow it down.

America needs the truth. It needs logic and reason. America must solve the challenges it faces in ways that stand the test of time. We can’t afford to build houses of straw when brick is what the objective facts demand.

He closes by pointing out that in America, the business of governing is treated more like a sport than as a responsibility which demands serious work by experts and professionals.

President Obama’s skills on the basketball court get talked about a lot. He is also likened to a Zen master chess champion. Both are admirable, and neither are what America needs.

[sic]

America can be a land where political calculus is based on the truth. And given how sick the patient is, if President Obama doesn’t decide to cure this virus, his legacy will be that when America was on life support he thought he and the virus that is killing us were playing a championship game of basketball.

Put simply—America needs a government of doctors, not athletes.

I was so impressed by this piece that I left a very complimentary comment which also asked Mr. Weber what he thought we could do to make the president wake up and recognize the truth of what he was saying. Mr. Weber replied to me directly saying that he would send his essay to the White House, and updated his original post with the same suggestion:

A hand written letter physically mailed makes a HUGE difference compared to emails sent in using those automatic opinion generating web sites.

Since almost no one really sends letters any more (one reason the Post Office is having huge financial difficulties), when a real, honest to God letter actually arrives, your elected representative takes notice.

Now, of course, in the case of the President of the United States it’s a bit more work. By that I mean, it would take many hand written letters for he and his staff to take notice. But what I do know (from the Washington Post) is that Pres. Obama’s team goes through all the letters he receives and delivers 10 of them to him each day. He has this fixed routine of reading these 10 letters every day. Therefore, if he gets enough hand written letters from people (with a copy of this essay attached), I think at least one copy will get through to him.

This won’t take much time. Figuring out what to say in my cover letter will be the most difficult part, but the rest of it is just a matter of printing the pages, putting them in an envelope, and getting it in the mail. As I’ve said before, fighting for change can actually be quite easy.

Why am I bothering to do this? Doesn’t it seem hopeless already, that Obama has proved himself nothing more than a politician only interested in the perception rather than the reality of Change?

Maybe so, maybe not. There was a time when I believed that he believed in the ideals he expressed during his campaign, and those ideals were inspiring. Buried within Obama the politician may still be Obama the Human Being, a man who recognizes just how critical this moment in history is and who wants to do what’s necessary to pull the country back from the brink.

One things is for sure—voting is not enough. In the upcoming mid-term elections, progressives have nowhere to turn. Voting republican is out of the question, but voting democrat would be a tacit approval of Obama’s politics-as-usual governing strategy.

Trying to change the system from the outside is probably the only viable option, but it’s also the most difficult and potentially disastrous option available to us.

A strong leader with a clear vision in a position of power is the best hope for achieving real change, and while Obama has that position he seems to lack the strength and the clarity of vision. If he were to decide to change course and stand up to the powerful interests rather than capitulate to them, he’d have the strong support of the majority of Americans behind him—the idealists who fought so hard to put him in office and who were willing to fight with him once he got there. He decided to ignore those people, to seal himself in the Washington bubble and play for political points rather than fix the broken system.

Convincing Obama to have a change of heart may be a long-shot, perhaps even impossible, but it does no harm to try. The risk is nothing, but the potential reward is incalculable. I’m going to write to the offices of Barack Obama and Joe Biden (who is more likely to read it) and attach Steven Weber’s essay to my letter. I urge everyone to do the same.

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave
Washington D.C. 20500

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