Sunday, November 21, 2010

I Despair but Hope that America Is Able To Renew and Reinvent Herself

I still love politics but I’m growing frustrated at what I see. Last night I posted a brief comment on Facebook that the Obama administration increasingly brings to my mind the name of the original Saturday Night Live cast, the Not Ready for Prime-Time Players, and that Sarah Palin reminds me of Senator Hruska's comment about Supreme Court nominee Carlswell that there are mediocre judges, people and lawyers and that they deserve some representation as well.

I've become bored with the utterances of our political leaders and completely turned off by the self-righteousness and sanctimoniousness of cable news’ talking heads. While I, because of my background as a political scientist, appreciate more than most that politics in a democracy requires compromise, I am frustrated by the incredible gridlock that has become a constant feature of our polity.

I am also frustrated by what I consider the myopia of many American voters. How voters, particularly independents not emotionally attached to a particular party, could conclude that the nation will be better off by returning Republicans to power is truly beyond my comprehension. I understand that exit polling suggests that voters were mainly expressing frustration with the economy and voting against the incumbents, rather than embracing Republican Party principles or candidates. Nonetheless, voters should have been able to discern what has been going on since the economy tanked under President Bush and who is more likely to lead the country back to prosperity or at least an improved economy.

The Republicans proved completely obstructionist during the last Congress and, despite their claims that they offered alternative policies, I don't recall any that had detail and substance. When they are asked point blank to specifically identify government programs that they will cut in order to fulfill the promises they continue to make, they duck and cover. In fact, it was Obama who stuck his neck out (in a way I do not entirely support given my own age) by implementing curbs in Medicare in the healthcare reform law he sought. As I understand it, the law eliminates Medicare Advantage and, over time, makes other substantial cuts in Medicare coverage. The Republicans, never fans of Social Security or Medicare, hypocritically sought to present themselves as the saviors of those programs while calling for enormous budget cuts and privatization of some of these safety net programs.

But I'm not enamored of President Obama. His professorial style is simply not appealing. Indeed it is off-putting. Is he only capable of communicating fluidly and with emotion when he has a prepared text and a teleprompter in front of him? It appears so. He doesn’t seem capable of connecting with people on an emotional level and a president needs to do so to mobilize support and move a nation. Obama truly is at risk of being a one term president. If the economy noticeably picks up in the next year and a half he may be spared that fate but who can tell. If the economy remains incredibly sluggish with high unemployment and gridlock in Washington, he may well lose.

Yet, who would be a viable Republican presidential candidate? That's scary. Barbour of Mississippi? I sure hope not. What a catastrophe. Pawlenty? A waffler.. Romney? A flipflopper of the worst kind. Gingrich? A joke and at this point a threat to democracy. Palin? More than a joke, a disaster. Huckabee? Not my cup of tea but he seems more level headed than most if not all of the other would be Republican candidates..

I frankly applaud the President, and the Congress, for their legislative accomplishments. The stimulus; healthcare reform; banking reform; student loan reform; credit card reform. These were major achievements despite critics’ attacks. But Obama, Pelosi and the others took their eyes off the ball. Carville’s “it’s the economy, stupid” is sage political advice for all time. I understand that Obama may have reasoned that his best and perhaps only chance of passing significant healthcare reform to bring 30 million uninsured Americans in from the cold was soon after his election and the election of strong Democratic majorities in both Houses. But when expectations of a quick economic recovery proved wrong and unemployment continued to rise, Obama and the Democrats should have returned their attention and their message to the economy and made that the central focus of their activities. It isn’t clear that anything the Democrats could have done, particularly in the face of consistent Republican opposition, would have measurably improved the pace of an economic recovery, but focusing more on that problem, showing greater emotion and empathy toward Americans’ plight, and considering alternative economic measures would have been the wise and prudent course.

Obama might even have been able to do so without abandoning healthcare reform had he stepped forward and taken the lead in explaining the proposed healthcare legislation to the American people. Instead, as he had done with the stimulus bill, he remained relatively aloof and let the Congress fight over the contours of the bill and that was a disaster. Tentative efforts by Democrats to explain the healthcare reform bill and other initiatives to the people last summer in town hall meetings proved inept when Tea Party adherents and others were able to shout down the Democrats and turn the meetings against the Democrats. It was a complete disaster and much of the blame is attributable to the President. I further blame the President for not focusing more clearly on his legislative record during the November campaign. It again appeared that the President and his aides lacked focus and failed to refine a message that could communicate the Democrats’ accomplishments with clarity and conviction to the voters.

Having said all that, the political party in control of the White House almost invariably loses seats in the Congress in off year elections. And with an ailing economy voters are even more likely to vote against the incumbent party. In this instance, the Democrats were the controlling incumbents in both Houses of Congress and the White House. This time the loss was huge, however, and will make it extremely hard for the President and Democrats to accomplish much legislatively before the 2012 elections.

I no longer watch the Sunday morning political interview programs – Meet the Press, This Week or Fox News Sunday. I find myself alienated from most cable news. I despair that America is slipping in its stature, as Asia awakens in this 21st century. We must indeed reinvent ourselves, not by returning to the practices of the early 20th century when America emerged as an industrial power but at a considerable price in terms of monopolies, sweatshops and other exploitations of labor, exclusionary immigration policies, and rampant racism, but by reasserting our inventiveness, creativity, market economy, commitment to higher education, balanced with fair social and economic policies designed to foster personal responsibility, individual freedom, a living wage, healthcare for all, and equal justice and opportunity for all Americans, not just a privileged few. It isn't clear we will succeed. It definitely requires belt tightening but also a willingness by all sides to find common ground.

I recognize that my Republican and conservative friends will claim that the Democrats are the party out of the mainstream, taxing and spending the Republic into bankruptcy, and pursuing a socialist tinged program. But I respectfully disagree. We are not a country of small farmers living long distances from one another or even a country of small towns and villages. We are a fully integrated society economically, and even increasingly integrated in a global economy. While I respect the role of the states in our federal system and the benefits of experimenting with new ideas in individual states, we will not thrive if we deny the need for consistent national policies in areas that once were the province of states, be that education, safety net practices, healthcare or other issues.