It was a blustery day in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009, as it often seems to be on the day of a presidential inauguration. As I stood with my 8-year-old daughter, watching the president deliver his inaugural address, I had a feeling of unease. It wasn’t just that the man who could be so eloquent had seemingly chosen not to be on this auspicious occasion, although that turned out to be a troubling harbinger of things to come. It was that there was a story the American people were waiting to hear — and needed to hear — but he didn’t tell it. And in the ensuing months he continued not to tell it, no matter how outrageous the slings and arrows his opponents threw at him. ...
Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values. Today we seek movies, novels and “news stories” that put the events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling and memorable. Children crave bedtime stories; the holy books of the three great monotheistic religions are written in parables; and as research in cognitive science has shown, lawyers whose closing arguments tell a story win jury trials against their legal adversaries who just lay out “the facts of the case.”
When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.
In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. What they were waiting for, in broad strokes, was a story something like this:
“I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.” A story isn’t a policy. But that simple narrative — and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it — would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands. That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism or the deficit — a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.
And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.
But there was no story — and there has been none since.
This has also been my problem with Barack Obama. It's not that he's more conservative than I'd hoped. That's true, but I don't expect our elected officials to agree with me about everything. It's that this eloquent candidate has become hopelessly inept at communicating our side of things.
I say "our" side because, although I'm often disgusted by the Democratic Party, that in no way compares to my complete revulsion at the GOP. I may usually vote against the Republican more than for the Democrat, but I know which side I'm on!
For at least thirty years now, the right-wing has kept the narrative squarely in their corner. I never understood why Ronald Reagan was supposed to be the "Great Communicator," since I found him simplistic and jingoistic. And it has amazed me ever since that right-wing thought has dominated our nation's discourse.
But surely after eight disastrous years of George W. Bush, when the right-wing was demonstrably wrong about everything - and which finally ended in the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression - surely then we'd see how wrong they'd been. Surely then we'd change course.
And with an articulate, eloquent, charismatic president - a president who campaigned on the promise of change, no less - I expected a "Great Communicator" for our side. What happened to that Barack Obama? What happened to that spellbinding speaker? What happened to that skilled politician? President Obama has the biggest bully pulpit in the world, so why hasn't he used it?
When Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office, he stepped into a cycle of American history, best exemplified by F.D.R. and his distant cousin, Teddy. After a great technological revolution or a major economic transition, as when America changed from a nation of farmers to an urban industrial one, there is often a period of great concentration of wealth, and with it, a concentration of power in the wealthy. That’s what we saw in 1928, and that’s what we see today. At some point that power is exercised so injudiciously, and the lives of so many become so unbearable, that a period of reform ensues — and a charismatic reformer emerges to lead that renewal. In that sense, Teddy Roosevelt started the cycle of reform his cousin picked up 30 years later, as he began efforts to bust the trusts and regulate the railroads, exercise federal power over the banks and the nation’s food supply, and protect America’s land and wildlife, creating the modern environmental movement.
Those were the shoes — that was the historic role — that Americans elected Barack Obama to fill. The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.
When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend. He exhorted others to put their full weight behind it, and he gave his life speaking with a voice that cut through the blistering force of water cannons and the gnashing teeth of police dogs. He preached the gospel of nonviolence, but he knew that whether a bully hid behind a club or a poll tax, the only effective response was to face the bully down, and to make the bully show his true and repugnant face in public.
In contrast, when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it. Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century. He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers back to work. He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it. But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far.
Barack Obama campaigned on bringing the country together. He campaigned on working with Republicans. And he bent over backward trying to appease them.
His intent was good. But you can't appease people who won't be appeased by anything you do, no matter what. You can't appease bullies. Obama trying to appease the Republicans was like Nevil Chamberlain trying to appease Hitler. At some point, you have to recognize that you must stand up for what's right.
All Obama did was let the Republicans write the narrative. Led by Fox "News," all Republican leaders got behind their narrative, wacky though it was. And on the other side? Nothing. Barack Obama was so busy trying to compromise with the GOP that he even adopted their talking points. He seemed to agree with their basic stance, either from conviction or just in an attempt to be agreeable - to this day, I don't know which.
The truly decisive move that broke the arc of history was his handling of the stimulus. The public was desperate for a leader who would speak with confidence, and they were ready to follow wherever the president led. Yet instead of indicting the economic policies and principles that had just eliminated eight million jobs, in the most damaging of the tic-like gestures of compromise that have become the hallmark of his presidency — and against the advice of multiple Nobel-Prize-winning economists — he backed away from his advisers who proposed a big stimulus, and then diluted it with tax cuts that had already been shown to be inert. The result, as predicted in advance, was a half-stimulus that half-stimulated the economy. That, in turn, led the White House to feel rightly unappreciated for having saved the country from another Great Depression but in the unenviable position of having to argue a counterfactual — that something terrible might have happened had it not half-acted.
To the average American, who was still staring into the abyss, the half-stimulus did nothing but prove that Ronald Reagan was right, that government is the problem. In fact, the average American had no idea what Democrats were trying to accomplish by deficit spending because no one bothered to explain it to them with the repetition and evocative imagery that our brains require to make an idea, particularly a paradoxical one, “stick.” Nor did anyone explain what health care reform was supposed to accomplish (other than the unbelievable and even more uninspiring claim that it would “bend the cost curve”), or why “credit card reform” had led to an increase in the interest rates they were already struggling to pay. Nor did anyone explain why saving the banks was such a priority, when saving the homes the banks were foreclosing didn’t seem to be. All Americans knew, and all they know today, is that they’re still unemployed, they’re still worried about how they’re going to pay their bills at the end of the month and their kids still can’t get a job. And now the Republicans are chipping away at unemployment insurance, and the president is making his usual impotent verbal exhortations after bargaining it away. ...
The conventional wisdom is that Americans hate government, and if you ask the question in the abstract, people will certainly give you an earful about what government does wrong. But if you give them the choice between cutting the deficit and putting Americans back to work, it isn’t even close. But it’s not just jobs. Americans don’t share the priorities of either party on taxes, budgets or any of the things Congress and the president have just agreed to slash — or failed to slash, like subsidies to oil companies. When it comes to tax cuts for the wealthy, Americans are united across the political spectrum, supporting a message that says, “In times like these, millionaires ought to be giving to charity, not getting it.”
When pitted against a tough budget-cutting message straight from the mouth of its strongest advocates, swing voters vastly preferred a message that began, “The best way to reduce the deficit is to put Americans back to work.” This statement is far more consistent with what many economists are saying publicly — and what investors apparently believe, as evident in the nosedive the stock market took after the president and Congress “saved” the economy.
I was never more disgusted with the Democratic Party than last fall, when Congressional Democrats refused to set up separate votes on tax cuts for the middle class vs. tax cuts for the wealthy. How could you ask for a better political stand than that? Republicans were handing the issue to them on a silver platter.
Hold a vote on cutting taxes just for the middle class. Republicans could vote against it if they wanted, but what would the American people think of that? And then campaign on holding the line on the budget deficit by refusing to continue tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy. It was made to order for the Democratic Party.
...But the Democrats refused to take that opportunity. Too timid? Too disorganized? Too dumb? Who knows? But I do know that our leader, Barack Obama, stayed on the sidelines. Just like his terrible passivity during the health care reform debate, when he refused to give Congress any guidance at all, he just let things happen. And Republicans crushed the Democrats in the November elections.
Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue. The president tells us he prefers a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction, one that weds “revenue enhancements” (a weak way of describing popular taxes on the rich and big corporations that are evading them) with “entitlement cuts” (an equally poor choice of words that implies that people who’ve worked their whole lives are looking for handouts). But the law he just signed includes only the cuts. This pattern of presenting inconsistent positions with no apparent recognition of their incoherence is another hallmark of this president’s storytelling. He announces in a speech on energy and climate change that we need to expand offshore oil drilling and coal production — two methods of obtaining fuels that contribute to the extreme weather Americans are now seeing. He supports a health care law that will use Medicaid to insure about 15 million more Americans and then endorses a budget plan that, through cuts to state budgets, will most likely decimate Medicaid and other essential programs for children, senior citizens and people who are vulnerable by virtue of disabilities or an economy that is getting weaker by the day. He gives a major speech on immigration reform after deporting around 800,000 immigrants in two years, a pace faster than nearly any other period in American history.
The real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit. That a large section of the country views him as a socialist while many in his own party are concluding that he does not share their values speaks volumes — but not the volumes his advisers are selling: that if you make both the right and left mad, you must be doing something right. ...
The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb — that “centrist” voters like “centrist” politicians. Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. Centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems. ...
But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans. It does not bend when the average middle-class family has seen its income stagnate over the last 30 years while the richest 1 percent has seen its income rise astronomically. It does not bend when we cut the fixed incomes of our parents and grandparents so hedge fund managers can keep their 15 percent tax rates. It does not bend when only one side in negotiations between workers and their bosses is allowed representation. And it does not bend when, as political scientists have shown, it is not public opinion but the opinions of the wealthy that predict the votes of the Senate. The arc of history can bend only so far before it breaks.
I don't know. I was optimistic in 2009. For the first time ever, my preferred candidate won both the nomination and the presidential election. The American people had thoroughly repudiated those right-wing Republican policies that had brought our country to its knees. And Barack Obama was going to bring desperately-needed change to Washington.
But even more than that, we were finally going to have a president who could use that great bully pulpit, a president who could communicate what needed to be communicated, a president who could lead us on to great things.
In early 2009, after the GOP was crushed in the elections, pundits were actually asking if it could even survive. We'd had eight years of non-stop disaster, where every single Republican policy proved to be a complete failure.
No, tax cuts for the rich did not "pay for themselves." No, the Iraq War did not "pay for itself." And no, Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, had nothing to do with 9/11, and was no threat to America at all. We'd invaded a completely innocent country for no reason whatsoever. And by doing so, we ignored the other war, the war in Afghanistan, the war we maybe could have won, if we hadn't taken our eye off the ball.
And then tax cuts for the rich combined with the deregulation of banks caused a bubble in arcane financial instruments, a bubble which popped to give us the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression! Surely the Republicans were finished after that performance. After that, who would ever vote for a Republican again?
But in only two years, they were back on top of the world again. Heck, they haven't even changed their policies! It seems to make no difference at all that those policies have already failed horribly. The right-wing narrative is the same as it's always been, and the fact that the whole thing failed once - and failed spectacularly - seems to make no difference whatsoever.
I have to blame Barack Obama for this. Oh, sure, I blame the American people, too. All too many of us are complete idiots, apparently. But Barack Obama has been so inept politically that he's let the same people who wrecked our economy and destroyed America's reputation back into power again.
Whatever good he's done - and he has done some good - is completely overshadowed by that. And if the Republicans win again in 2012, even if it's just Congress, we're all going to be in serious, serious trouble.
In the fall of 2008, when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and there was panic on Wall Street, I was buying stocks. In March, 2009, when the collapse appeared to have no bottom, I scraped up every bit of cash I could and again bought stocks. But this week, with the market again crashing, I'm not buying. I'm just too pessimistic about America's future.