Mr. President: More Reform, Less Dissonance

by Robert S. Becker on June 23, 2009

“Yes We Can” Change Everything – Except the Status Quo?

Bemused by early booing of President Obama, my skeptical Texas friend bides his time, “letting the political dogs bark till the heat drives them indoors for a nap.” This from writer-professor Clay Reynolds, wondering if rushing to judgment reflects Obama “as a curiosity, a carnival side-show attraction drawing the worst attention from pundits, or perhaps our times are that unique.”

One barking dog is satirist Bill Maher, plagued by classic cognitive dissonance – when minds can’t reconcile conflicted or opposed beliefs. How can Obama command the media by speaking so boldly yet so far carry a small stick? “I’m glad that Obama is president,” Maher quipped, “but the ‘Audacity of Hope’ part is over. Right now, I’m hoping for a little more audacity.” Obama must “put it on the line in fights against the banks, the energy companies and the health care industry,” even copy Dubya’s smug doggedness. Bush “had a lot of bad ideas, but he pushed them through, never mind Congress, the Constitution or the Geneva Convention . . . [even] if it made him unpopular.” Funny, but off the mark: this is no reform Congress, betrayed by backward Democrats.

More substantially, Harper’s Kevin Baker startles by comparing Obama not to FDR but to a competent Herbert Hoover whose smarts couldn’t transcend outworn paradigms. Baker likewise views Obama as incremental compromiser, too wary to see this rare moment demands bold confrontation with powers-that-be. Facing tasks so monumental failure is “unthinkable,” Baker dreads Obama “will fail, because he will be unable—indeed he will refuse—to seize the radical moment at hand.” When unthinkable meets unpredictable, dissonance strikes.

Hold the Revolution, I’ll Take Reform

Others, like John R. MacArthur, knock the president’s credibility, “During the campaign he carefully avoided committing too much of anything important that he might have to take back later . . . yet, broadly speaking, Obama has been lying on a pretty impressive scale. You just have to get past his grandiloquent rhetoric — usually empty of substance — to get a handle on it.” More worrisome are trustworthy pros, like Joe Nocera, judging specific proposals on financial regulations anemic, no more than sticking “new regulatory fingers into a very leaky financial dike.”

Mr. President, why drag your feet when riding high? Why make loyalists ache with dissonance? Update your rhetoric, sir, or update the status quo. Your website still soars: “Now is the time to leave behind the status quo and build support for real solutions to ensure that President Obama succeeds in fulfilling the promise of change.” What “status quo” has been left behind? What “real solutions” are even pondered for banks, energy, or health care? Frankly, I’m mystified when David Serota blithely urges you to “dream big” and become the “revolutionary, not just a reformer.” Hold the revolution, I’ll settle for reform.

Look, I’m still on the train, clinging to optimism that, after tepid band-aids fail, reform will come. I won’t kvetch, to win election, you had to overpromise on cultural issues, now fudged or suspended. But name one major confrontation with entrenched power, to contrast the avalanche of your welfare favoring bad actors and bad decisions, from Wall Street to torturers to Iraq? Critics are finding more continuity than change from the vilified Bush-Cheney administration, signaled by the gap between what you now deem possible vs. what yesterday was “fiercely urgent.” On economics, the military-industrial complex, and anti-terrorism, persistent accommodation displaces hard bargaining. Despite brouhaha for transparency, one veteran rights lawyer laments, “nothing has changed,” this White House is “recycling old Bush secrecy policies.”

No one familiar with your moderate voting record foresaw high risk gambling, but leaving “behind the status quo” sounds like a wicked joke, undercut weekly by its opposite. You won by persuading a majority, sick to death with Bush Fatigue, you’d differ from McBush. Your standing, as upstart outsider with a unique story, promised immunity from selling out. Okay, you won’t recklessly “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,” but where’s the brave anti-war candidate ordering troops home?

On Tap, the Urgency of When

Fine speeches also strike discordant notes. After you admirably conceded inexcusable mistakes, like overthrowing democracies, fantasy overtook your National Archives speech, “From Europe to the Pacific, we’ve been the nation that has shut down torture chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law.” Since your birth, for every place liberated, we’ve crushed two others, compliantly silent today about tyranny in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Egypt, or China. In Cairo you overreached by promoting America as no “crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.” But Bush was “crude.” And we are emphatically a “self-interested empire” whose occupations keep us in the empire business.

What this conflicted voter wants is clarity about the “urgency of when.” Unhelpful reactions to sustained dissonance are denial, even self-deception, as those beset by painful, internal conflicts seek relief. Rife with idealistic optimism, naturally inclined to trust those we like, millions remain loyal to your campaign vision, despite reversals and deflections. Political capital comes from Americans favoring attractive, well-spoken, apparently sincere leaders who speak with great authority.

Thus, Mr. President, it’s mystifying how infrequently you flex major reform muscles. You’re the best orator in a generation, more genuine than aloof Jack Kennedy, a better educator on complexity than the “Great Communicator,” Ronald Reagan, as brainy as Bill Clinton, and your finesse approaches FDR’s. No wonder you took the trifecta, whipping the Clinton machine, topping a war hero, then winning over a divided, racist country – and much of the world. But winning the presidency and high approval numbers are means, and the end remains: to make a difference. Please, remember why you were elected. Since failures to resolve near depression, global warming, multiple wars, and more nukes are “unthinkable,” the consequences would shake the globe – and worsen our growing dissonance, I bet.

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