Let me try to calm down.
Here is a revealing passage, in which Obama laments that, because of today’s extensive and multifaceted communications channels, he – that is, the President of the United States – cannot get his ideas across to the American people.
The President: Part of the challenge is—and I see this in our politics—is a common conversation. It’s not so much, I think, that people don’t read at all; it’s that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they’re reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don’t have that phenomenon of here’s a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about.
Sometimes you get some TV shows that fill that void, but increasingly now, that’s splintered, too, so other than the Super Bowl, we don’t have a lot of common reference points. And you can argue that that’s part of the reason why our politics has gotten so polarized, is that—when I was growing up, if the president spoke to the country, there were three stations and every city had its own newspaper and they were going to cover that story. And that would last for a couple of weeks, people talking about what the president had talked about.
Today, my poor press team, they’re tweeting every two minutes because some new thing has happened, which then puts a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict as a way of getting attention and breaking through the noise—which then creates, I believe, a pessimism about the country because all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about at the beginning, they’re not heard.
Granted, if the President wishes to participate in the common conversation, today’s communications technology – especially the internet – make it very difficult. A 21st century President cannot have “fireside chats” like FDR, or reach the nation through folksy, pointed humor, colorful enough to make it into the newspapers, like Lincoln. But Roosevelt’s chats and Lincoln’s jokes were political tools, they were intended to bolster policies that owed nothing at all to the common conversation. Presidents may rely on expert advice or ideology or peer pressure from cronies when they make policy, but generally are not influenced by the common conversation, on what TV pundits say, or op-ed pieces, or articles in thoughtful magazines, or trends on Twitter. Quite the opposite: the common conversation, its subject matter and its direction, is influenced by Presidential policy.
Even in these clangorous times, the President of the United States has no problem reaching the people if he has something important to say. All he has to do is put it in the form of a new policy, and it is a front-page headline and the leading story in news broadcasts.
Obama has had no trouble grabbing the attention of the news media and redirecting the common conversation when it comes to foreign policy. An adjustment in our military stance in the middle east, in our attitude towards China, in our foreign trade agreements, can cause a hullabaloo that reverberates for weeks. Why is he incapable of doing the same thing with the domestic issues which, it is clear from his conversation with Robinson, trouble him so much?
Perhaps his struggle with the Affordable Care Act, the flak he received from both sides of the aisle, the distasteful efforts he made at collegiality with contemptuous, perhaps even racist, Republicans, and the embarrassments that accompanied the Act’s implementation, made Obama wary of proposing any other sweeping domestic measures. Foreign policy declarations, trade agreements and military deployments may arouse the ire or the approval of John McCain, AIPAC, the US Chamber of Congress, and other wonks and lobbyists, but they do not invite the sweeping, tumultuous, universal uproar that changes in domestic policy do. Maybe that is why Obama avoids them.
But that is not being entirely fair to the President. His administration’s 2014 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA), which allows some undocumented immigrants who arrived here as children to receive work permits and be immune from deportation, is exactly the kind of domestic policy by executive fiat that I called for in my previous post. All it took was a memo from the Secretary of Homeland Security to initiate the program. The House voted to defund it, but since its costs are pretty much covered by an application fee, the defunding was toothless. The media liked DACA – lots of heartwarming stories to make up space between ads – so opposition to it has become muted.
To reiterate my point in my previous blog. Many – probably most – Americans are unhappy, discouraged, frustrated by the same political, economic, social problems that Obama says make him unhappy, discouraged and frustrated. There is a difference though. The rest of us essentially are powerless. Obama is the most powerful man in the world.
Obama thinks one reason our democracy has been weakened is that Americans do not know enough about their country’s past. Why doesn’t he instruct the Education Secretary to mandate the teaching of more American history? If the policy is quashed by the NEA or experts who say that knowing history won’t help us when it comes to global economic competition, still the President has changed the common conversation. A strong American history curriculum – whether it wins in that round or loses – is on the table.
Obama bemoans the fact that “workers have less leverage.” Why doesn’t he have the Department of Labor institute rules requiring management salary cuts if the jobs of laid-off workers go to cheap off-shore replacements? If the new rules get shot down by Congress or the courts, he still has changed the common conversation. The policy may be stymied, but it will have begun percolating in the Washington policy stew.
Obama tells Robinson “we could knock off another percentage point on the unemployment rate if we started rebuilding roads and bridges and airports.” With the next infrastructure catastrophe – a bridge falling, levees crumbling, a tunnel collapsing, a railroad signal failing – Obama could declare an infrastructure emergency and set up something like Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration (the PWA, not to be confused with the WPA). Maybe it would fly, maybe not. (The PWA was shut down by the Supreme Court.) One way or the other, the infrastructure would become part of the common conversation, a major election issue instead of the back-burner one it is now, and in a few years a successful version of the failed program might be established, just as the PWA was the impetus for the WPA.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
It could be that these times aren’t as desperate as we feel they are, that we are caught up in a sort of partisan paranoia, with right and left competing to have the most horrific vision of the state of the nation. But from his conversation with Marilynne Robinson, it is clear that the President thinks the times are as desperate as everyone else does – on the left and on the right, too, although the right’s desperation has a different slant.
If you’re that desperate, President Obama, let’s have some desperate measures.