Let Them Eat Bitterness (August 12, 2010)

frenchrev3

I live in a nice building in a not always so nice neighborhood. Two nights ago, an intoxicated member of the “99 Weekers” club took it upon himself to smash the exterior intercom unit of my residence with a baseball bat. “99 Weekers” is a cute name for a tragic situation facing growing numbers of Americans, who have exhausted the maximum unemployment insurance benefits available to them, 99 weeks, without the end result of finding new and meaningful employment.

These individuals don’t want a handout, they want a job, but with increasingly anemic private sector growth, face the prospect of finding themselves permanent members of the new underclass. Without income and with dwindling marketable skills, the disenfranchisement of these former members of the middle is slowly turning to misplaced anger, directed not at the government or corporations, who are ultimately responsible for the nation’s tailspin. Instead we are witnessing the beginning of a modern day class war, waged between the frustrated and desperate “have nots” and the perceived “haves.”

Let me be clear: I am not a “have.” I experienced a childhood of abject poverty marked by abuses and neglect of the most harrowing kind. Be that as it may, I get that my comparatively fancy rental can offer an easy target to a drunken individual who has spent another fruitless day looking for work. On his way home to face an expectant family, knowing he must check his ever diminishing manhood at the door once again, I can understand the urge to displace on an inanimate object. Intercoms can be repaired and I hope that this hasty act provided some form of comfort.

In discussing this incident with a co-worker, the subject of the palpably rising anger of ordinary Americans came up. My office mate astutely observed that we appear to be on the verge of a modern day French Revolution. Only viewed through the cracked prism of America’s toxic partisan politics “holy war,” we are miscasting the players with dangerous consequences.

For example, Michelle Obama is being pigeonholed by the right as the 2010 understudy to Marie Antoinette. The chum being tossed to the public by members of the Republican party, are the images of Michelle’s lavish private vacation to Spain that made the viral rounds last week. Mrs. Obama is a private citizen and does it come as a surprise to anyone that the first family has money enough? Before moving into the White House, both of the Obamas had thriving legal careers and a beautiful home in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. If the First Lady can afford some time away from the relentless stress of being Barack’s wife, why should we draw erroneous conclusion that she is somehow ignorant of the suffering of normal Americans? This is a logical fallacy being peddled by those who would love it if we could be distracted enough to take our eyes off the real problem: legislative paralysis enabled by corporate kowtowing.

The real Marie Antoinettes in our story are people like former Nixon speechwriter and TV personality Ben Stein, who was quoted recently as saying “The people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities…I see people who have overbearing and unpleasant personalities and/or who do not know how to do a day’s work.”

Out of touch much Mr. Stein?

Or how about GOP Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who called a $20 billion victims’ fund negotiated by the Obama administration for those who have been put out of work in the Gulf, and funded by BP, “extortion.”

No wonder our most currently beloved pop cultural hero is former Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater, who assumed his rightful place in the media zeitgeist this week by engaging in the most flamboyantly fabulous resignation of all time. After being hit in the head with a piece of overhead luggage one time too many, Mr. Slater decided he couldn’t wait for the plane to taxi to the gate before telling passengers and co-workers where to stick it. Instead he grabbed the microphone and a beer, saying his piece before deploying the emergency slide – sailing out of the plane and into the hearts of millions of Americans – who applauded Slater’s actions with enthusiasm that only be described as wish fulfillment.

However what really crystallized the idea that we may in fact be headed toward a massive, violent populist uprising was a recent article I read by David Stockman, President Reagan’s director of the Office of Management and Budget. Yes, the following words came from a disgusted member of old guard, “true” and fiscally conservative Republicanism:

“The day of national reckoning has arrived…we will see a class rebellion, a new revolution, a war against greed and the wealthy….It’s a pity that the modern Republican party offers the American people an irrelevant platform of recycled Keynesianism when the old approach – balanced budgets, sound money and financial discipline – is needed more than ever.”

In other words, my building’s intercom box is only the beginning…

Obama’s Pragmatic Problem (May 19, 2010)

Barack Obama...President Barack Obama speaks about combat troop levels in Iraq as he addresses military personnel at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., Friday, Feb. 27, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

 

I want to state unequivocally from the outset that I am a huge supporter of President Obama and his work since taking the oath of office in January of 2009. The argument could reasonably be made that he inherited one of the finest messes that ever faced an incoming Executive, and for the most part, I believe he has acquitted himself with the thoughtful grace and deliberation that his predecessor, the “Bring ‘em on!” cowboy himself, George W. Bush, could never muster. There is much to be admired with Obama, and he has commanded my respect as a leader. I would not be the one to make the decisions he has thus far – stimulus, bailouts, health care, etc. – but I am glad someone did. I feel, for the first time since 2001, that we are in good hands, even if the national landscape remains an overgrown mess in need of some serious weeding.

Yet recently an inkling has begun to wash over me that Obama is losing a war right here at home that is as critical to his domestic agenda as any policy his think tank could develop – and that would be the public relations war. We read the same results in poll after poll. Folks like Obama personally, but judge him to be “professorial,” “intellectual” and “too deliberate.”

Such a paradox. On the one hand, we desire a level-headed leader who can soothe us in times of crisis. But on the other hand, the red blooded American public also wants passion and plenty of it – just don’t go overboard, a la Howard Dean. It’s a delicate balance for sure, but in my estimation, there are some recent issues where I would have preferred to see less analysis and more knee jerk emotion. I get the feeling at times that Obama’s “people” are so busy managing his image that they forget why we voted for him.

The White House response to the Gulf Oil spill comes to mind. While I understand that shouting down BP executives on a daily basis does nothing to resolve the crisis, I believe that Obama’s calm and cool demeanor represents a missed opportunity to harness the national anger to effect change – i.e. FINALLY doing something about our dependence on foreign oil. It was gratifying to read in this morning’s New York Times that no less a personage than Tom Friedman is with me on this one.

I am no fan of the Tea Party and find myself at odds with them on nearly every policy issue, but I readily believe that one of the reasons they have succeeded in connecting with the American people so palpably and quickly, is that their strategists cannily understand and tap into the way that anger and desperation can foment revolt. It’s one of the principles this great nation was founded upon. Mr. Obama, the former Constitutional lawyer, should know this better than anyone, but is failing to use this phenomenon to advantage.

So after much consideration, I am left with this assessment:

1. Obama = fair and balanced, measured and temperate

BUT

He often appears unrelatable – so contrary to the image of Citizen Obama, the candidate. And at the risk of sounding the complete cynic, I wonder if making the most logical decisions necessarily means making the best ones. Does his team even care about the difference? Or are they just trying to manage the returns of the November mid-term elections? This short term strategy is disappointing, and not what Obama supporters were after.

Another example from late last week: the issue of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s sexuality. Instead of rushing to squash the rumor, ask yourself Mr. President, and the American public simultaneously, why the hell it should matter? Most people don’t have an answer to this question that doesn’t clumsily fall out of their mouths as they mutter about “family values.” Become the Obama you once were, the one who when asked if he inhaled while smoking marijuana as a college student, nonchalantly replied, “I thought that was the point.” The question was never posed again.

2. Tea Party = fringe, hooking to the right, highly emotional

BUT

They have captured the cultural zeitgeist in a way that the overly messaged Obama administration has not. This truth is reflected in Obama’s poll numbers as well as this week’s House and Senate primary elections. Rand Paul is in. Harry Reid, the unpopular Senate majority leader from Nevada is hanging on by a thread. Enough said.

I sincerely hope the Tea Party does not confuse their recent victories with a “mandate” as some of their members have suggested, but all the same, the American people and the White House would be making a mistake to dismiss them as a passing trend. They do have something to teach Obama that could make him a better, stronger more effective leader.

Anger and disaffection, when wielded incorrectly, can be destructive. However, when harnessed and channeled in the right direction, emotions can act as an impetus to bring about “change we can believe in.”

Mr. President, we are still “fired up and ready to go.” Are you?