The #22 Clark (April 4, 2011)

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A little over a week ago, I stepped out the front door to meet a girlfriend for brunch. It was an unusually warm early Spring afternoon in Chicago, 60 degrees and sunny – the perfect day for baseball.

I had chosen to take the #22 Clark bus south to meet my friend at our chosen destination, a Scottish pub in the City’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. The Clark bus is one of those lines that seems to extend forever and goes through so many of Chicago’s key neighborhoods. Start riding at the northernmost extreme, and by the time you reach downtown, you’ll have passed through the trendy LGBT neighborhood of Andersonville, taken a gander at historic Wrigley Field, whizzed past the Chicago History Museum and landed in the thick of it all in Chicago’s Loop.

I boarded the bus at 11:45 AM, just in time to catch the beginnings of a crowd headed over to the Friendly Confines for Game 3 of the Cubs’ home opening series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cubbies are an institution in the Windy City, one of the National League’s original teams founded in 1876. Yet 135 years later, there’s still something so magical about those early season games: the predictably uneven April weather which can have you reaching for your winter coat or a pair of shorts with equal likelihood, the unblemished statistics of the Lovable Losers, a time when you can still believe this might finally be the Cubs year.

On this afternoon, shortly after I took my seat on the crowded bus, a man boarded with his adorable two year-old son. Father and child, decked out in their Chicago Cubs finery, were en route to the boy’s first baseball game. At any time, I would have been struck with this child’s preternatural cuteness: dark red hair, fair complexion, precocious yet clumsy walking ability and the hugest smile I have seen in awhile. His vocabulary, rather limited at this stage of toddler life, was big enough to convey the child’s most important thoughts, alternating between “Are we there yet?” and “baseball!” I am nearly 33 years old, and I could relate.

The boy’s father was nearly as excited as his son. The thrill of being able to share a beloved experience with his offspring, introducing the uninitiated into the magical world of balls and strikes, the beauty of whiling away an afternoon with peanuts and crackerjack, the man’s joy was palpable through the crowded bodies and smell of exhaust. And though this scene was one of honesty, delight and love, it kicked me right in the gut.

I am about to be divorced – for the second time. My two failed attempts at matrimony produced no children, a scenario for which I am usually grateful. I have made the conscious decision to leave my womb barren and given my track record with “forever,” I am grateful that I have not subjected another generation to my personal instability. 99.9% of the time, I am at peace in a world in which I am beholden to nobody as I struggle to find my place.

But oh how that 0.01% can hurt, as it did last week. As I smiled at the boy and his father, passing the short ride to Wrigley in innocent, excited conversation, a small voice inside my head began to grow louder and more demanding. “Who will remember you when you’re gone? What have you taught anybody? And for God’s sake, why is it so damned hard for you to hold onto love?”

How can it be that something a majority of the world does, like settle down with someone and have a couple of kids, is so thoroughly beyond me? It is my habit to ask rhetorical questions for which there are clearly no answers.

A minute or so after my silent foray into existentialism, I felt awful for making a beautiful moment between a father and son about me. The writer’s pitfall I guess. Nothing really happens unless it relates to the self, right? Then I realized, as I continued listening to their happy chatter, that my aim was one of a social scientist, as if by eavesdropping on the easy conversation of the fulfilled, I could figure out the formula. I might be able to crack the code of “normalcy,” absorb it by osmosis or something, and leave the bus somehow more whole, more open to giving and receiving love than I had boarded it.

But before my work was done, the charming duo reached their destination. The boy excitedly bid everyone aboard the bus adieu and within moments, the two were lost amongst a sea of peanut sellers, ticket scalpers and throngs of baseball fans waiting to endure enhanced security checks. There is no inconvenience too great for the happy tailgater.

The father and son’s absence was immediately felt aboard the bus. The elderly woman who had been beaming at the two, and asking questions about the boy’s development for the last several miles, returned to her newspaper with a serious mien. The bus driver, amiable and upbeat moments ago, retreated behind his bulletproof shield, eyes once again focused on the road. And as I headed toward my final destination, a carefree brunch with a friend who had nothing real to gain or lose by my presence, I realized I may have come as close to a secure sense of belonging as I will ever get.

A Degree in Mediocrity (March 8, 2011)

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This past weekend, while performing my daily sweep of The New York Times‘ columnists, I came across this interesting piece by Bob Herbert. I confess that I often find Herbert’s work to be redundant (“We are screwing the middle class!” – Yeah, but what else?) and downright dull, but this column hit me with the thunderbolt of self-recognition.

Herbert makes a provocative argument in slightly less than 800 words. We find a lot of ink these days devoted to America’s sinking ranking as a first world producer of competitive, college-educated young adults. But what about the ones who do emerge in four or five years, degree in hand? How are they faring when pitted against the challenges of real life? Herbert’s assessment is damning: “Students are hitting the books less and partying more. Easier courses and easier majors have become more and more popular. Perhaps more now than ever, the point of the college experience is to have a good time and walk away with a valuable credential after putting in the least effort possible.”

A good portion of the blame, according to the column’s argument, lies with the students themselves. According to statistics quoted by Herbert, American university students are studying a full 50% less than their counterparts in the 1960s once did. By extension, additional underlying causes must necessarily be grammar and high schools that fail to introduce academic rigor into their charges’ lives, or the phenomenon of “helicopter parenting” which has left a large segment of adults overly-dependent on Mom and Dad.

However, Herbert does not stop there. U.S. institutions of higher learning are themselves culpable in the inadequacy of our graduates, according to the columnist. He cites results from a study conducted by the Social Science Research Council, which conclude, “that in their first two years of college, 45 percent of the students made no significant improvement in skills related to critical thinking, complex reasoning and communication. After the full four years, 36 percent still had not substantially improved those skills.”

Even allowing for a few percentage points of inaccuracy, it is more than frightening to entertain the idea that nearly half of our nation’s college freshman and sophomores are no better off, from a cognitive standpoint, than they were when they first arrived on campus. And the implications for a productive life, given this mediocre outlook, are clear. Herbert writes, “The development of such skills is generally thought to be the core function of a college education. The students who don’t develop them may leave college with a degree and an expanded circle of friends, but little more. Many of these young men and women are unable to communicate effectively, solve simple intellectual tasks (such as distinguishing fact from opinion), or engage in effective problem-solving.”

As I digested Herbert’s arguments regarding our enfeebled, inadequate graduates, I thought of my own experience as a student at a Big Ten University from 1996 to 2000. My stint as a co-ed at one of the country’s most renowned party schools may pre-date Herbert’s area of concern (methinks he was confining his observations to Millennials, though I can’t be certain), but I felt the cold shame of recognition.

Over the course of the last decade I have said more than once that I “stole” a degree from my alma mater. This is because, with the notable exception of exactly two semesters, I rarely ever went to class. Besieged by depression caused by a PTSD reckoning with an unstable childhood, as well as dissatisfaction with rural life, I withdrew from the game. Instead of becoming engaged with campus activities or rushing a sorority, I worked at a number of part-time jobs whose sole purpose was to stock my liquor cabinet. I met with an advisor one time throughout my four year undergrad career – the first time I ever registered for class, then never again. A regular check-in with a professor, counselor, or even a grad student just wasn’t part of the picture at this social-security-numbers-as-identity institution.

With few resources to prop me up, and very few instructors who factored attendance into final grades, I treated each course as an independent study. I went to class when I felt like it (usually not), and invariably steered clear of the many large lecture-hall style settings which compromised the bulk of my underclass course selections. I showed up on test days, turned in papers when required and invariably coasted my way to a very unsatisfying 2.89 final GPA. But hey! It was enough to graduate and get out right?

Well yes and no. I am aware that my profoundly depressive experience isn’t exactly what Herbert is referring to, but years later, my unearned degree in English Literature didn’t sit right. I knew I hadn’t done the work and felt like a fraud when I traded schooling notes with a new office acquaintance. Though I never meant to manipulate the system, somehow I had, and given that it wasn’t very difficult, I wondered how many others had done the same, intentionally or otherwise.

In 2005, I returned to school to earn my Master’s in English Literature, finishing my studies in late 2007. For many reasons, this second degree was of paramount importance to me, a way of redeeming myself from the extremely lackluster performance I had turned in half a decade ago. I am proud to say that I worked very hard for the M.A., and even prouder to declare that my second institution of higher learning held me accountable. My professors knew me by sight (whereas nearly all of my undergrad tutors could not have picked me out of a lineup), and checked in with my academic progress on the regular. The second time around, from my side as well as my school’s, was everything a satisfying college experience ought to be.

But how many graduates, skating by with an easily won B.A. or B.S. force themselves to return and acquire the critical thinking skills they missed the first time around? An even better question might be to ask ourselves that with the world’s most expensive education system, tuition and fees rising astronomically even before the onset of the 2007 Great Recession, what exactly are we buying?

Rahm the Inevitable (February 21, 2011)

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Now that the wide variety of political shenanigans that have come to exemplify the 2011 Chicago mayoral race have been exhausted, it seems there’s nothing left to do but wait for Tuesday’s electoral returns. At that point we may stop referring to former U.S. Congressman and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel as the “presumed favorite,” move beyond his Goliath campaign and start seeing the new CEO of Chi-town in action.

After all, there’s no way anyone could take him at this point, right? Rahmbo has five times more campaign funds at his disposal than nearest fiscal competitor, Gery Chico. His slick print ads and television spots depict the handsome, well-dressed former ballet dancer as a family man who cares about the middle class, ready to make the “tough choices” that will put Chicago back on the fast track to claiming its status as an affordable, world class city. A few of his TV plugs contain public endorsements from not one but two U.S. Presidents, current POTUS Barack Obama, as well as immediate predecessor William Jefferson Clinton.

From the moment on October 1, 2010 when Rahm Emanuel formally announced the resignation of his big-time White House post to throw his hat in the ring for the Chicago mayoral race, his candidacy had an almost pre-ordained quality. His name would certainly be the biggest in the contest, and all too often in U.S. politics, bigger means more viable. Rahmbo is a bulldog by reputation, which fits very well with the Windy City’s blue collar, tough guy image, yet he knows how to construct a sentence. The current mayor, Richard M. Daley, speaks with the eloquence of a barely housebroken pitbull, and his constituents (and machine conspirators) love him for it. Emanuel seems positively refined by comparison, no matter how many “f” bombs he drops.

In terms of name recognition, Rahm Emanuel’s only real competition comes in the shape of political hasbeen, former U.S. Senator Carol Mosley Braun. Although ignorance is bliss where Braun’s legislative past is concerned, most Chicagoans over the age of 35 well recall her terrifically tone deaf response to Newsweek contributing editor George Will’s 1998 examination of the various corruption charges against her: “I think because he couldn’t say nigger, he said corrupt.” She went on to compare Will to a Ku Klux Klansman, stating “I mean this very sincerely from the bottom of my heart: He can take his hood and put it back on again, as far as I’m concerned.”

One might labor under the mistaken belief that Mosley Braun has since learned to police the crazy, having undone her career once already. But no, that’s incorrect. Open your web browser and log onto to Google. From there, enter the search term “carol moseley braun crackhead.” What do you see? All the links you can handle reporting a January 30, 2011 incident at a live debate where Senator Braun addressed opposing candidate Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins as follows: “Patricia, the reason you didn’t know where I was for the last 20 years is because you were strung out on crack…Now, you have admitted to that.”

Van Pelt-Watkins had of course, admitted to no such thing, but move over Whitney Houston. The legendary singer’s 2006 utterance to journalist Diane Sawyer that “crack is whack” was heretofore the most infamous commentary regarding the illegal substance.

So yeah, with opposition of this ilk, Rahm Emanuel’s path to the mayor’s office has been relatively smooth sailing. I do not mean to suggest, with this review of Carol Mosley’s Braun’s uninterrupted political gaffes, that Emanuel faces no serious challengers. He certainly does. It’s just that former Richard M. Daley Chief of Staff Gery Chico and City Clerk Miguel del Valle, both respected public servants, cannot complete with the sexy, baby kissing, cash flush spectacle of Emanuel.

The thing is though, I think many residents of Chicago have grown tired of being told who their leaders will be before having the chance to evaluate. Though the town has never done much to dispel it’s reputation as a one-party, corrupt patronage operation, much like the recent liberation of Egypt by its own democracy-staved citizens, I smell a similar passion for change in the Midwest air. Three ex-governors in the last 35 years have been sent to the clink, and a fourth, Rod Blagojevich, is surely on his way. Mayor Daley may have done great things in terms of beautifying the landscape and attracting new business but anyone who has lived in the city for the last 22 years knows how much damage his interminable term has done: skyrocketing property taxes, unaffordable homes, runway gang crime and terrible fiscal decisions.

Though change is in the air in one form or another, is there anyone naive enough to believe that Rahmbo will represent a clean break from The Machine? I am still having a hard time digesting the coincidental swap of Rahm Emanuel for Bill Daley, the outgoing mayor’s younger brother, as the President’s Chief of Staff. No, there’s nothing suspect about that at all.

With Rahm demonstrating a commanding lead in the polls, 49 percent of the popular vote to Chico’s 19, it seems pointless to consider an outcome other than his total domination at the polls this week. But wait! For those of us perversely hoping for a dark horse spoiler (and no, Carol Mosley Braun, before you even start, that is not racist), we do have the prospect of a runoff. In order to prevent a general election showdown between Rahmbo and the number two finisher, the foul mouthed one needs at least 51 percent of the vote. 49 just won’t do. It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that some hard last minute campaigning by Chico and del Valle (who has my vote) will prevent Emanuel from sailing into City Hall on Wednesday. Run-offs are generally not the friend of front-runners because they allow time and opportunity for a once splintered opposition to develop a united front.

However unlikely, as a lover of democracy residing in a city that doesn’t see a lot of balanced elections, that’s what I’d like to see happen. I want Rahmbo, if he is indeed our mayor-to-be, to have to sweat it out at a bit more than he has. Those lame residency challenges, which Emanuel continued to swat away like pesky mosquitoes, do not satisfy the appetite for electoral combat. After 22 years of Daley hostage-taking, Chicago deserves a real fight for its future.

Losing More Than Innocence: The Challenger Disaster and Children of the 1980s (January 31, 2011)

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I have written some about the rough upbringing my sister and I endured, which included a lot of ugliness not important to itemize for the purposes of this essay. However, before we moved into our first single family home when I turned seven, the situation was fairly benign, I would go so far as to say happy.

My father had recently finished a four-year stint as an Army M.P. and we moved back to Chicago from the Virginia station we called home in 1982. My baby sister was only two years old, and since we arrived in the Windy City during the summer months, it felt extra wonderful to return to my birthplace. I was able to see grandparents almost anytime I wanted, grandparents usually bearing gifts or trips to favorite restaurants. I was preparing to enter kindergarten, and unlike many other nervous small fries, I was stoked. I already knew how to read and write but I precociously understood that there was a lot more information out there that I wanted to consume. Jen was definitely more concerned with my morning absenteeism from her world.

We went on normally, playing in the backyard of our North Center neighborhood apartment complex, watching The Family Feud and The Bozo Show, recreating Pat Benatar and Michael Jackson dance sequences in our parents’ bedroom in front of a small black and white TV. I will forever be grateful for the seven years of blissful childhood ignorance I was able to enjoy before the bottom fell out.

Although I do not hold the explosion of the Challenger Spaceship on January 28, 1986 personally responsible for my inevitable turn toward weary cynicism, it definitely provided a shove. There I was with the rest of my class, sitting in front of a TV our teacher, Mr. Knuth had rolled into the room. Every other space inside the tiny Lutheran grade school I attended was enjoying the same privilege. It was so exciting to be granted a reprieve from routine to be able to watch the shuttle launch, which included the first teacher/astronaut, Christa McAuliffe. And she was a woman too! What an awesome role model, even as we kids snickered about how much we’d love to launch our own teacher into the stratosphere.

We sat quietly at our desks, enthralled by the pre-launch activities, as well as the opportunity to be treated like real people with an interest in national news events. It felt so empowering. When the shuttle went off, we cheered over the roar of the engines and the fiery plumes left in the moving craft’s wake. Hey, maybe one day we all could be astronauts too!

And then…well we know what happened. 73 seconds after the loud excitement of the nation’s children began, many of us received our first taste of complete shock and grief. I felt something for the first time, a set of emotions that I would come to know intimately: I knew what I saw and what it must mean, but how could it be true? If it was true, how could it be undone? What do you mean we can’t fix it? We have to! Of course upon realizing that the adults around us did not have the answers, were in fact just as bewildered and sad as the rest of us, I felt afraid. This was the first moment, the one I will always remember, when I realized that the world is often so far out of our control. Even the well-meaning, the hard-working, the rule abiders can suddenly and quickly find themselves on the short side of cosmic fortune.

The TVs were rolled out of the room by jittery, bereft teachers just as quickly as they had been rolled in. Our instructors did what they could to return some normalcy to the day but it was far too late. How could we forget that we had witnessed the fiery, sudden death of American citizens? How would that ever be ok?

A seven year-old does not have the wherewithal, the emotional resources for perspective. Whether a situation is pleasing or tragic, it seems as though it will go on that way forever. We’re like a bunch of mini manic depressives at that stage. There was a lot of crying that evening, on my part as well as my mother’s. I asked a lot of questions but wasn’t really satisfied with any of the answers. This was the first time I had any idea that most of life works this way. All I know is I didn’t care for it. I thought about how Christa Macauliffe’s children must have felt that night, how the families, spouses, siblings and friends of her fellow space hopefuls must be racked with grief.

I concluded right then that I never wanted to be an astronaut. Even being a teacher sounded like a raw deal, as to my young mind, you were either the victim of tragedy or one who had to walk students through their own. I also figured that maybe I ought not to be so eager with my information consumption, as the truth often leads to horror.

It angers me as an adult that per Wikipedia, “The Rogers Commission found that NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making processes had been a key contributing factor to the accident. NASA managers had known that contractor Morton Thiokol’s design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings since 1977, but they failed to address it properly. They also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching posed by the low temperatures of that morning and had failed to adequately report these technical concerns to their superiors.”

I think what little was left of my seven year-old sanity would have been completely demolished it if had been explained to me that agency greed and ambition was the actual killer of the space team. Now of course I am inured to the damage to human and environmental life that corporate decisions can bring (BP, drug makers, etc.).

The Challenger Explosion was more than a major “Where were you when?” moment in the lives of 80s children. It was the first glimpse of the notion, in a period where President Reagan cheerfully peddled American invincibility and Nancy Reagan told us all to stay away from drugs, that our leaders just might be full of shit.

Another Step in the Wrong Direction (January 10, 2011)

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Ever since the November 2010 mid-term election “shellacking” of the Democratic Party, an outcome that many viewed as a direct rebuke of the Obama administration, it has been clear that Team Barry is direly in need of a leadership shakeup. When we learned just before Thanksgiving that White House senior advisor David Axelrod would be stepping down from his post, many on the Left breathed a collective sigh of relief. Axelrod may be a presidential campaign wunderkind, but to say he’s struggled with messaging for the sitting POTUS is something of an understatement.

On January 5th, we were informed that press secretary Robert Gibbs would also be making his way toward the exit. CNN may wish to wax nostalgically that “Gibbs had an easy, joking relationship with the press,” however the party’s base can still recall with cringing clarity the head spokesman’s bungling of the health care messaging war, the PR debacle that was the Gulf Oil Spill, and countless other instances in which the Obama staffer struggled to find his verbal footing.

But the first of Obama’s major players to announce his departure, way back in September of last year, was chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel. Off to take a crack at replacing longtime Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, “Rahmbo,” as Mr. Emmanuel is affectionately or scornfully known, left in his wake months of speculation as to who would replace the President’s top bulldog.

This week the nation received an answer to that question. Bill Daley, former President Clinton’s commerce secretary, has accepted the call to micromanage the remaining two years of Obama’s term.

Um, excuse me? Let’s leave aside for a second the incestuous implications of swapping Rahm Emmanuel, the Chicago mayoral hopeful, for the brother of the current Windy City chief. That’s just Chicago politics as usual, playing out on a larger, national stage. Anyone who believes that Rahmbo presents a realistic break from machine politics in the Midwest would do well to remember that the man was a 5th district congressman from Illinois for nearly six years. He knows from arm twisting and patronage.

But Bill Daley? Are you serious? For those of us sitting on the middle left of the political spectrum, this is yet another devastating blow to the President’s once shining promise of change, to be the end of Washington politics as usual.

Behold the following headline accompanying a January 7th Crain’s Chicago Business report of the appointment: “Business Applauds Bill Daley’s New Role on White House Center Stage.” You bet it does. There is no Democrat alive lying more snugly in the cash-lined pockets of Corporate America than Bill Daley. The story goes on to assert “With one flourish, President Barack Obama turned around the perception that the White House is anti-business, set the stage for better relations with a Republican-dominated Congress and steered his administration back toward the independent voters he’ll need to get re-elected next year.”

I know I sound like a broken record at this point, but the query bears repeating. Was there ever a time when the Obama administration was actually “anti-business?” Because it was difficult to see the intolerance what with all the TARP money raining down on Wall Street and the Detroit automakers, the BP-led, agonizingly slow response to the Deep Water Horizon well explosion of last summer, the castrated, insurance company-friendly version of the health care overhaul, and last month’s deficit-expanding reduction in payroll taxes. With enemies like President Obama, does the business community require any more friends?

I realize this subject is also tiresome for the Capitol Hill/Big Business consortium, but the bottom is still falling out for the country’s once thriving middle class. Where is the appointment that demonstrates a commitment to bettering the lives of everyday citizens? With home prices continuing to fall, an “improving” job market that replaces stable, permanent positions and benefits with part-time and contract work, and the availability of credit more than out of reach for many, what message does Bill Daley’s nomination send to the Average American?

In a nut shell, we had better be prepared to bend over a little farther, do with a little less, sacrifice a little more, so that, by all means, the business community gets the consideration it needs to feel better about hiring us again. Those record setting profits just don’t cut it the way they used to.

It is after all, Bill Daley that we must largely thank for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), better known as the 1990s launch of Offshoreapalooza.

The Daley family may brand themselves as Chicago Democratic royalty, but neither of its two most famous brothers should be considered men of the people. The party affiliation they claim is arbitrary, because the only real party they align with is the Daley Machine, set in motion by their ubiquitous father, Richard J. Daley. Dick Sr. ran the Windy City as a personal playground for he and his most loyal cronies for a span of 21 years, between 1955 to 1976. He taught his sons well, and for the past two decades (1989 – present), Dick Jr. has plundered the City coffers in inventive ways that would have made his corrupt father proud.

While Richard M. has been content to confine his corrosive influence to one town, Bill has been a bit more ambitious and will now serve out his second appointment under a sitting Democratic President. If you liked NAFTA, just wait to see what sort of influence Daley will have in an environment where Big Business is repeatedly allowed to present itself as a modern-day martyr at the altar of a leader with a “socialist” agenda.

Considering that Bill Daley will have to vacate his post as the Midwest chairman of J. P. Morgan Chase, and will relinquish his seats on the boards of major companies including Abbott Laboratories, Boeing and Merck, I think it’s safe to conclude his loyalties will not be residing with the 9.4% percent of Americans desperately looking for work. But what about you Mr. President?

Obama Has Lost Me (December 21, 2010)

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As we approach the imminent conclusion of 2010, an increasing number of liberals that comprise the leftmost wing of the Democratic party are being drowned by waves of nostalgia for November 2008. This was the time, immediately following the historic election of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American Commander-in-Chief, courier for the messages of “hope” and “change” that were to be the hallmarks of the country’s future, when lawmakers from both parties alternately believed in or feared a permanent Democratic majority. In that moment Obama, flush with bold new initiatives in the aftermath of eight years of Bush administration mismanagement, seemed infallible.

On the other hand, the Republican party, which struggled mightily to formulate a message or strategy under the McCain/Palin ticket, appeared to be destined for banishment. Leaders of the GOP publicly and privately indicated that the party faced the Herculean task of finding a platform and voice that could appeal to the mainstream middle. Obviously endless war, permanent tax cuts and corporate favoritism had fallen out of favor.

What a difference 24 months can make. This past week witnessed the two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts, up to and including those for the wealthiest two percent of Americans. While Obama has stated that this “compromise” was only reached in the face of an unprecedented Great Recession, a need to eliminate tax code uncertainty so that businesses could once again begin to hire, and the private sector to spend, I don’t think there’s a policy wonk living of any political stripe who genuinely believes the addition of another $880 billion to our national debt will have that effect. For example, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who often seemed to act throughout the W years as the little more than Bush’s financial yes man, was characterized by NPR in July as believing “the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to lapse. Greenspan, who as the nation’s top central banker in 2001 and 2003, pushed for the Bush tax cuts, now says that was a mistake.”

Tax cuts for cash hoarders at the top have little to no simulative effect on the economy. We’ve listened to the experts say the same thing over again, yet the Obama team would still have us believe that this recent demonstration of Republican blackmail, and Democratic capitulation, “brings hope for hiring and growth.” When I entered the booth in 2008 and cast a deliberate vote for “hope,” this sort of cynical gift giving to the rich, while keeping fingers crossed for a positive outcome, was not what I had in mind.

Meanwhile Vice-President Joe Biden insists that the administration will do the right thing and end this decade-long Treasury robbing in 2012, a Presidential election year, because somehow, you know, the economy will get better. “We will be able to make the case much more clearly that spending $700 billion over 10 years to extend tax cuts for people whose income averages well over a million dollars does not make sense,” Biden said, according to an AP report. Can I see a show of hands of those who believe the rich will willingly give up their booty as an altruistic measure, when and if the unemployment rate creeps back toward 5%? The President will face the same situation in two years – give into Right wing demands or suffer the electoral consequences. The President may be a good man at his core, but he is still a politician.

Mirroring the pragmatism of our indecisive leader, I can believe Obama to be a decent, learned human who truly wants to do right by his country, yet not like his chosen methods, or the results produced by his extreme rationalism one little bit. Somehow the energized 2008 Democratic base has seen it’s party’s messaging morph from an affirmative and spirited “Yes, we can!” to Joe Biden’s claim on this past Sunday’s Meet the Press that “politics is all in the art of the possible.” The problem is, this shift in mission statement was decided upon without the input of the most impassioned liberals who carried Obama to office on their shoulders in the first place.

The President’s positions on so many issues that once seemed black and white to his team, including energy and climate change, immigration policy and defense spending, have become so nuanced, so rife with Washington-speak about “concern” and “commitment,” that it is presently very difficult to distinguish between the regimes of Bush 43 and Obama 44. Iraq and Afghanistan? We are still there, with no reason to believe we’ll be out anytime soon. More brave soldiers lost, and more trillions we don’t have to spend will be thrown at our twin Waterloos. BP and Big Oil? I don’t want to revisit the Gulf spill of this past summer because the administration’s ineptitude is still too painful, but it’s clear the barons remain in charge. Infrastructure? I live in Chicago and the last time I checked, the bridges around me will still crumbling and I have no access to high speed rail.

I and my fellow disenchanted liberals will not be bought off with the passage of the Affordable Health Care for America Act of 2009, mainly because, beyond allowing young adults to remain on their parent’s plans until the age of 26, it’s hard to see how the situation has improved. Insurance premiums continue to skyrocket, with deductibles that nearly guarantee a childless married couple (in my case) will never receive benefits. We wanted the Public Option because nothing less will force real change in the insurance industry.

Ditto for the long overdue repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy as pertains to gays and lesbians serving openly in the armed forces. While this piece of human rights legislation finally passed both houses of Congress over the weekend, the process took way too long. When you have the support of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the backing of two-thirds of the American people, and a bipartisan legislative coalition behind the overturn of the ban, and it still takes two years to get it done, something is wrong. I have a sneaking suspicion, and I am not alone in this feeling, that our leader isn’t terribly concerned with advancing the fight for equality amongst GLBT citizens. Yet within days of the rabid liberal disappointment following the tax cut deal, DADT is old news. Isn’t that a coincidence?

Can the President win his Left base back between now and November 2012? That remains to be seen. However, if history teaches us anything, there is reason for pessimism about Obama’s return to beatific, Everyman fighting form. There are so many dire issues which require the President’s action, many of which I have mentioned earlier in this essay, yet election cycles tend to bring out the very worst in “safety first” legislative development.

I know it’s pathetically idealistic, but dammit, I feel betrayed. A vote always matters, but I truly believed, way back in 2008, that I was casting my ballot FOR something, not just in opposition to the other guy, which was the takeway of my 2000 and 2004 experiences. I drank the Obama Kool-Aid in heavy doses, and now, as is the case with any hangover, I am left with nausea and regret.

Tired of Spending (November 29, 2010)

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Having barely survived this past weekend’s Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and as we the American consumer make our way through Cyber Monday, I am worn out from the retail experience a month away from my family’s interfaith celebration. A collective of Christians, Hindus and Muslims, we are able to reach across the aisle to embrace the secular side of the holiday season: the food, the gifts, the music, and most especially the family togetherness. We pride ourselves on finding the most cost effectively fabulous gifts, and love every moment of the window shopping work it takes to get there. Or at least that’s the way things worked in healthier years.

This annum, I am unemployed – for the second time. My sister and her husband are underwater with their mortgage, after refinancing their home a couple of years before the markets exploded in one giant, universe wrecking supernova. My husband and brother-in-law are gainfully employed but shell shocked by layoff experiences of the past that have set them permanently on edge. My nieces, perfect human beings of ages 11 and 3, have had special education and minor surgical needs, respectively. None of that, as is obvious to every parent in the nation, is anywhere close to free.

Long story short, like too many members of the middle class across the land, my kin and I have taken some hits. And is it just me, or is there something extra depressing about the bottomless worry we are being asked to choke back this holiday season? It’s like we’ve become a country of strong and supportive 1950s June Cleavers, putting on a happy face to declare in our public discourse that America is on its way back. But secretly, we’re popping mother’s little helpers, lying awake in despair, wrestling with the secret suspicion that the American dynasty has jumped the shark irretrievably.

Consider the results of Rasmussen Reports Friday, November 19th poll, released just a week before the kickoff of the holiday shopping season. Participants in the telephone query were asked the following question: “When you think about our nation in the context of history, are America’s Best Days in the future or in the past?” The outcome may not be that surprising. According to Rasmussen’s data, “just over one-third (37%) of Likely U.S. Voters believe America’s best days are in the future. Forty-seven percent (47%) say the nation’s best days are in the past, while 16% are undecided.”

There’s a gut check moment. Almost half of us believe that we are collectively worse off, with questionable prospects for regaining what we’ve lost. Another one-fifth of us can’t make up our minds. Considering that some of our “best days,” include the Civil War, the Great Depression and two world battles, it would be dangerous not to pause and reflect.

With this pessimism in mind, the shine appears to be off the once celebrated mass consumption orgy that is the November/December gift giving season. What do you get for the family that has nothing? What gift best says, “you may not have your home, a career, your retirement fund or good credit, but have a Sponge Bob Chia Pet!” And I don’t know about you, but I am less inclined and enthused to spend because the indistinguishable government/corporate sector wants it so badly.

Politicians, economists and market wonks keep waiting for that good old reliable consumer spending to kick in, the force that has never failed to lift the country out of even lengthy periods of recession. But this time around? The unemployed need every penny they can grab just to stay afloat. Those lucky enough to have jobs are trying to take a whack at record levels of personal debt accumulated in the latter years of the 1990s and into the aughts. Those more fortunate still are hoarding cash, finally learning the lesson that nuclear Asian families have been preaching for decades: save, baby, save.

Middle America finally gets it even if Washington and Wall Street have yet to catch up. We’re not going to be able to spend our way out of long-term, fiscally unsound policy. When you expend two decades shipping low to medium wage jobs overseas, when you let housing prices spiral out of control, when the cost of a competitive, first world education carries a higher price tag than a used Bentley, something is out of whack that no Walmart door buster is going to repair.

So although Reuters reported this morning that “total retail traffic will have risen 8.7 percent to 212 million shoppers from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday, compared with the same period in 2009,” that bit of good news is delivered with the sobering caution that “it is still too early to say whether retailers will be winners this holiday season, especially if early online and store deals have already gotten consumers to complete the bulk of their shopping.”

As I wandered the malls this weekend with my husband, the air was heavy with something that smelled an awful lot like futility. The pall hung over the low wage, no benefit retail employees, the family carrying reward certificates and shopping lists, yelling at one another to hurry up and get in the checkout line. There seemed to be no joy in a ritual that once spawned the kind of nostalgia that beget great cinematic classics like A Christmas Story and Miracle on 34th Street. Macy’s is longer a place where dreams comes true. Instead it’s just another tony market where hardworking people with “good” white and blue collar jobs can’t afford to shop.