Q I am a chief financial officer for a veterans service organization, AmVets here in Washington. I'm also a mother, I'm a wife, I'm an American veteran, and I'm one of your middle-class Americans. And quite frankly, I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for --
THE PRESIDENT: Right.
Q -- and deeply disappointed with where we are right now.
I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I'm one of those people, and I'm waiting, sir. I'm waiting. I don't feel it yet. And I thought, while it wouldn't be in great measure, I would feel it in some small measure.
I have two children in private school. And the financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family. My husband and I joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs and beans era of our lives.
THE PRESIDENT: Right.
Q But quite frankly, it's starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we're headed again. And quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly, is this my new reality?
Obama's response was not good, as was clearly underscored by brooklynbadboy in a frontpage DKos post rightly called "The wrong way to answer Ms. Velma Hart." Here's where the critique kicks in:
At the end, she said:
Quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly: Is this my new reality? If I may paraphrase, "is this as good as we're gonna get from you?"
"As I said before, times are tough for everybody. So, I understand your frustration."
The President then went on note a "whole host of things that do make your life better."
Wrong answer, sir.
Don't go telling Ms. Hart all what you've done for her when she is telling you "I can't feel it." Instead, you need to assert strongly where all these things you are doing are going to take the country. Ms. Hart wants strong action that makes a real, and immediate difference. And by action, she means action that is going to restore her faith in the American Dream: that you can work hard (direct federal hiring), play by the rules (regulate Wall Street), do right by your family (fix the housing market), be proud of your work and America (fair trade), and retire with dignity and respect (no catfood commission).
Now this is not a particularly left-wing criticism of Obama. In fact, it's not really asking him to be much more than a decent carbon copy of Bill Clinton, our first neo-liberal President. But that appears to be too high a hurdle for Obama to clear. Nor were the bottom-line conclusions drawn anything more than plain old pragmatic political common sense:
Ms. Hart, I think, personifies the enthusiasm gap. Base Democratic voters like her, and I'm sure many Democratic leaning independents, aren't teabaggers. They are people who simply expect this President to tackle the short term as well as the long term problems. If it isn't going to happen, or if they don't believe in the hope of it happening, they're going to stay home this November.
.... What would really fire up the base is coming out swinging with an aggressive agenda for next year that includes direct, immediate action on the housing crisis, unemployment, and retirement. Bread and butter Democratic stuff. Tell America where this country is headed and how we are going to get there. That is how you put the GOP on the spot. Tell the story of what they are for (as this front page has advocated all year), and contrast it with where Democratic government will take us. Paint a picture of two American futures, and make sure ours is better. That how to get people like Ms. Hart fired up to win this damn election.
Ms. Hart said it best:
Quite frankly, I thought that my question would set the platform for a response that would almost be, I don't know, whimsical, magical, very powerful. On the fact that he does believe he's made progress, I know he's made progress. The issue for me is that I'm not certain that the progress is being felt deeply enough. And that is where I'm looking for the bang for the buck. I couldn't agree more.
But looking at the whole of Obama's Town Hall performance, there is simply no way we are going to get anything like this. And the clearest proof of that is how Obama responded to a question about the Tea Party, in which he totally ducked anything close to articulating a Democratic point of view. He spoke pretty much like Chris Matthews or some other politically clueless Versailles pundit might--albeit on one of their better days when they've got some of their basic arithmetic skills online:
Q Good afternoon, Mr. President. Thank you for coming to speak with us today. I am a full-time MBA student at Georgetown University right here in the District. And my question is with regards to those individuals that feel like federal government is getting too large, specifically the Tea Party's movement. My dad and I were talking about the midterm elections just last night, and he was asking who we should vote for. And the question was what will the administration do if these activists are elected?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me say this about the Tea Party movement -- which your friend, Rick, helped to name. I think that America has a noble tradition of being healthily skeptical about government. That's in our DNA, right? (Applause.)
I mean, we came in because the folks over on the other side of the Atlantic had been oppressing folks without giving them representation. And so we've always had a healthy skepticism about government. And I think that's a good thing.
Obama really needs to read Michael Lind's column this week, "The right picked the wrong historical analogy: The real parallel to today's conservative backlash isn't the Boston Tea Party. It's the Whiskey Rebellion". Although, to be fair, Obama's a lot more off-base than the Tea-Partier's here, since he's confusing the reason many folks left England--religious persecution--a question of civil liberties with reasons that drove the Revolution--taxation without representation--a question of political rights. For a former lecturer in constitutional law, that's really a stupid mistake, as well as being utterly boneheaded politics.
[Obama]: I think there's also a noble tradition in the Republican and Democratic parties of saying that government should pay its way, that it shouldn't get so big that we're leaving debt to the next generation. All those things, I think, are healthy.
The problem that I've seen in the debate that's been taking place and in some of these Tea Party events is I think they're misidentifying sort of who the culprits are here. As I said before, we had to take some emergency steps last year. But the majority of economists will tell you that the emergency steps we take are not the problem long term. The problem long term are the problems that I talked about earlier. We've got -- we had two tax cuts that weren't paid for, two wars that weren't paid for. We've got a population that's getting older. We're all demanding services, but our taxes have actually substantially gone down.
And so the challenge, I think, for the Tea Party movement is to identify specifically what would you do. It's not enough just to say, get control of spending. I think it's important for you to say, I'm willing to cut veterans' benefits, or I'm willing to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits, or I'm willing to see these taxes go up.
What you can't do -- which is what I've been hearing a lot from the other side -- is say we're going to control government spending, we're going to propose $4 trillion of additional tax cuts, and that magically somehow things are going to work.
Here we see Obama at his worst. He not only totally failed to even try to articulate a specifically Democratic message--much less a set of values--he once again showed that he simply cannot get it through his head that the Tea Party is not about rational discourse, and that all his efforts to pretend that they are will only spell further political losses, as he dispirits his base, encourages the Tea Baggers to keep pushing hard against him, and reinforces the entirely mindless Versailles mindset.
To get back to the title of diary, what I think this shows is that Obama is not a brilliant politicians, any more than he is visionary leader or whatever other illusions people may still harbor about him. Rather, he has a fairly limited range of talents--they are prodigious in some respects, but clearly limited in scope, and especially in adaptability.
Obama rose quickly to the US Senate and then the presidency because he had the right combination of message and manner to present a convincing alternative to terrible dysfunction the nation had devolved into. He offered a solution: Let's all back off and try to figure our way out of the mess we've gotten into. This was a plausible way to put an end to the Bush Era, but it didn't actually address any of the underlying problems that made everything so bad. There never was any plan about how to actually do that. Just "sit down together and work things out in a bipartisan manner". It really does not appear that Obama had anything in mind more specific than that. Once the Rodney King schtick ran out of steam, he had nothing else to fall back on.
A one-trick pony.
The Democrats made a very severe mistake with Obama. Republicans had perfected the use of public records in government as a campaign weapon. Every vote on every issue could potentially be used against a candidate. Rather than going after the Republicans head on for systematically degrading the processes of governing, legislating and campaigning, the Democrats decided to play by the GOP's rules and run a relatively unknown, but charismatic candidate who would be relatively immune to the GOP's distortions of public life.
But there's a reason that public life should be considered one of the most important indicators of who should advance to higher office. Public life involves different sorts of issues, skills and values than private life does. Not entirely, of course. There are plenty of commonalities. But it's the distinctive features of public life that are the most crucial and telling--although the GOP has done everything it possibly can to dishonor, deny, degrade and destroy those distinctive features.
The Democrats thought they could find a cheap way to fight back against the GOP's cheapening of the public sphere, and they got badly burned in the process. They got a one-trick pony who would have never gotten very far with the old togher standards in place, or else who would been forced to learn more tricks before he got so high up.
And now we are all of us paying the price for that fatal error.
The Democrats' current electoral woes--which Krugman quite correctly notes are not inherently fatal--are but a foretaste of avoidable catastrophes to come, all because we're saddled with a one-trick pony, whose trick is no longer the answer to anything.