Drew Westen’s brilliant piece in Sunday’s New York Times, about character traits of President Obama, and how they may explain his disappointing actions, took me back to some notes I made, earlier this year.
My notes recorded the notion that Barack Obama’s seeming shortcomings as a President may be a consequence of an aspect of the President’s, (and the First Lady’s), personalities that Professor Westen didn’t mention Sunday.
Actually, for those of us who’ve known the President and the First Lady since they returned to Chicago from Harvard Square, that aspect of their personalities has been plain as day.
As I watched the Obama’s rise to power, I kept hoping for some ongoing public commitment to social justice and equality from two gifted people whose childhoods were spent in modest circumstances, scarred by the consequences of race discrimination, yet who had so much to offer the world. It rarely showed-up.
Instead, the President chose the safety of a cubbyhole at the University of Chicago Law School and the anonymity of a State Senator who never said anything that really challenged “the power elite,” (keep reading), and the First Lady chose the security of Richard Daley’s City Hall and the University of Chicago, albeit interrupted by an interlude at Public Allies.
Where could I hear the speeches of these oh-so-wished-for social justice advocates? Where could I join up with these (metaphorically-speaking) great-great grandchildren of W.E. B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells, (whose fine educations and successful careers hadn’t silenced them)? Nowhere, as it turned out.
As I thought about this, after reading Professor Westen’s piece, I remembered a speech by another President. In his farewell address, President Eisenhower said:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
Eisenhower’s remarks came a few short years after C. Wright Mills wrote about “the power elite.”
In his book of the same name, Mills wrote “…(The Powe Elite) calls attention to the interwoven interests of the leaders of the military, corporate, and political elements of society and suggests that the ordinary citizen is a relatively powerless subject of manipulation by those entities.”
Sixties’ radicals adopted these two ideas and phrases and converted them into a rallying cry against the power elite. Their rallying cry was directed especially to students closest to the power elite, like those in Harvard Square; like, say, Michelle and Barack Obama.
Their message was: Don’t be seduced by the “military industrial complex” and “the power elite.” Don’t get caught in its web of destruction (of the lives and economic security of Barack Obama’s “ordinary Americans”). Their message was: Fight with everything you’ve got for those “ordinary Americans” and against “the power elite.”
If they heard this message in Harvard Square, Michelle and Barack Obama were seduced by a different one, the one of that very power elite. Join us, they said. And join they did.
So much so that, as Professor Westen puts it, Barack Obama mistakes compromise (with the “complex”) for capitulation (to the “complex”), as a consequence promulgating economic policies that have done nothing to achieve economic security, in these desperate times, for the “ordinary Americans” he says he cares so much about.
Professor Westen describes the implications of this American tragedy:
But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people (“the power elite”) control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans, ‘the average American…staring into the abyss….’…When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend.”
For me, the denouement of this tragedy was a couple weeks before the “capitulation” over the debt limit crisis. It was a few Friday nights ago. That was when President Obama talked about being “left at the altar,” and he also referred to the “working stiffs” of America.
I couldn’t believe it. I jumped up off the couch. Such a pejorative description for America’s heroes, the people who make America work, but who have been sandbagged by the power elite, just as Mills feared they would be.
The phrase, “ordinary Americans” has been bugging me for years. My parents taught me that everyone is special; that no-one is ordinary. Hadn’t the President’s mother taught him the same thing?
And now this one!
But then I got it. When Barack and Michelle Obama were seduced in Harvard Square, they abandoned those not of the Square, those “ordinary Americans.” Why else would the President use the term “working stiffs”?
Like Barack and Michelle Obama, I was fortunate to be educated at one of our nation’s great colleges. Like Barack and Michelle Obama, I live a comfortable life in circles that matter to the “military industrial complex.”
But I feel like I don’t think what they think.
I don’t think “ordinary Americans,” and then there’s us, the special ones.
Instead, though I’m far, far from perfect, I try to remember this: When you’ve been seduced by a suitor’s access and money; oh, and did I say power, as the Obama’s apparently were in Harvard Square, you have two choices. (After you remember where you came from), you can do something big for those left behind–and the bigger you are, the bigger it should be–or, you can just tinker around the edges.
I got it that Friday night. Apparently, Michelle and Barack Obama had concluded that, if you create real change for those you left behind, you might be in Harvard Square, but you sure won’t be of it. No Martha’s Vineyard for you.
By contrast, Professor Westen points out that FDR had the courage to do the right thing when faced with the same problems President Obama faces today:
In a 1936 speech at Madison Square Garden, he (FDR) thundered, ‘Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me…and I welcome their hatred.’
Who were these “forces”? Well, that very same “power elite” that seduced President Obama. That very same “power elite” who prevent America’s economic recovery today, in favor of maintaining its “great concentration of wealth,” “…when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans.”
I believe that each of us is born with redeeming character traits, along with traits we should mitigate. In the Obama’s case, a powerful redeeming trait is their generosity, one-on-one. I, for one, have never seen so many hugs, by a President and a First Lady, of “ordinary Americans,” as I have in the last couple years.
But that’s just not enough for these next couple years.
Time to forget the hugs, and do what FDR did: Ignore “the power elite” and fight for those “ordinary Americans” leaving the White House, with nothing but hugs.
A few years ago, when I used to see (only) an occasional homeless person on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, I asked some friends how many homeless people they would tolerate on this street in the heart of Chicago’s “Gold Coast,” before they would try to change the situation. No-one could or would say.
Fast forward to today’s Michigan Avenue: Every day, in every block, one sees several homeless people, often mothers with their children: Ordinary Americans, down on their luck, needing an American revolution, not a hug.
I’m thundering today, not from Madison Square Garden, but from my desk a few blocks from Michigan Avenue.
President and Mrs. Obama: We three, and many others, have been blessed by good fortune, strong families, and good educations. But not every American has had all that good luck.
Now, that “other America” desperately needs that which only your government can provide for it, just as FDR’s did for the other America of his day.
President and Mrs. Obama: Please recognize that you’ve been abandoned by the very people who seduced you. Now, it’s time to forget about them: They are your enemies; they’ve gotten what they wanted. Now, they’ve left you standing at the precipice, and left your less talented and fortunate brothers and sisters to die homeless in the streets. I know you know this. You’re way too smart and care too much not to. I know you know that compromise isn’t sufficient to this need. I also know you are the two most powerful people in the world. Time to stop tinkering around the edges, and do something really big: Use that power for the great(est) good.
President and Mrs. Obama: About that visit to Martha’s Vineyard later this week: Forget about it. Instead, come home. Come walk along Michigan Avenue, and talk to some homeless neighbors; come walk through the First Lady’s old neighborhood, and talk to some more neighbors, also in desperate straits; come walk through the wasteland that is Altgeld Gardens, even more desolate than the one of your community-organizer youth. Come home, and go to the 63rd Street Beach, (instead of the Martha’s Vineyard beach), and talk to “ordinary Americans,” the bereft children of your bereft sisters and brothers.
President and Mrs. Obama: Leave “the power elite” to their dastardly deeds. Come home to this complex, the real American one.