Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How About a Few Fireside Chats from President Obama?

The temperature's rising in the Oval Office, with health insurance reform, increasing federal deficits and the war in Afghanistan swirling in controversy. Critics on the right and left are emerging from the woodwork to get their 17 seconds of coverage on the evening news. The President's approval levels are dropping, although they remain strong overall.

To a large degree, these problems are not of President Obama's making. He didn't mismanage the war in Afghanistan for 7 and 1/2 years. He didn't blow up the financial system and throw the economy into a severe recession through weak regulation poisonously accompanied by a recklessly accommodative Federal Reserve monetary policy. He didn't create the tortuous labyrinth that is our health insurance "system," where Minotaurs lurk at every turn.

But he has allowed himself to be pushed into playing defense. His health insurance reform proposal consists of general ideas that shift with the tides; in particular, the public insurance option does the hokey pokey in and out every other day. The amorphousness of his health insurance proposal allows his critics to claim he's taking something away from the public while imposing undue taxes to cover other people. As for the government's projected deficits, his detractors make Godzillas of their size. Missing from the picture is what we get from health insurance reform and from spending all this money.

As for Afghanistan, it's clear the President is concerned about appearing soft on terrorism. He's been pushed hard by Dick Cheney, the right wing's Prince of Darkness, and has drifted noticeably closer to the Bush II administration's antiterrorism policies. The Democratic Party's liberals are starting to shuffle their feet nervously. The President hasn't articulated an end game or an exit strategy. When it came to combating terrorism, the Bush II administration ultimately had nothing to offer except fear itself, a fear that apparently was used to justify a costly war in Iraq, official torture, overlooking CIA transgressions of the administration's torture policy, overly broad domestic electronic surveillance, nondisclosure to Congress of the proposed use of mercenaries to assassinate Al Queda leaders, and the legal cancer that grew at Guantanamo Bay. The problem with fear is that it is a raw emotion, not a reasoned principle, and therefore cannot serve as a foundation for democracy.

The great Presidents--the ones historians write about and people remember--are the ones who got things done. Smart, talented, but unproductive ones like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter barely get footnote treatment. Barack Obama's proposed programs will die the death of a thousand cuts if he plays defense against the barrage of political trash talking that has come his way. He can't please all the people all the time, and his promises of bipartisanship are being twisted around behind his back to shackle his agenda.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was famous for his fireside chats--radio addresses aimed directly at the electorate--to explain how he intended to make things better for America. Barack Obama--not his spokesperson, not his aides, but he himself--should take the lead. He needs to more specifically define his health insurance reform and then explain why it will improve things. He cannot deny that the costs of universal coverage won't be large. He needs to describe the benefits of universal coverage and explain why they justify the costs. The American people didn't support Social Security because it would increase their taxes. They supported it because it would alleviate poverty in old age and they considered that goal worth the extra taxes.

President Obama must explain why the federal deficit is so large and why the extra expenditures will make America better off. We had comparable deficits during World War II, but the people understood why and were willing to pay the price.

He must develop an end game and exit strategy for the war in Afghanistan. In this regard, he should not exclude a non-victorious conclusion. President Reagan's withdrawal from Lebanon and President Clinton's withdrawal from Somalia arguably took some pressure off terrorists. President George W. Bush's wind-down of the war in Iraq acknowledged a humiliating failure of American policy that can only encourage terrorists. But the American people were willing to live with these consequences because continuing to fight in those locations became too costly. The United States has the naval and aerial resources to hit Al Queda training camps without needing American infantry on the ground. American diplomacy can exploit potential differences between Al Queda and the Taliban to undermine support for the terrorists. Maybe that sounds far fetched right now, but so did the notion of Richard Nixon attaining a pragmatic alliance with the Communist Chinese (against whom America fought a bitter war in Korea) in order to weaken the Soviet Union.

Taking the lead publicly would place Barack Obama at considerable political risk. But he's there already. He has charisma, and could do well. It's not enough to do a couple of town hall meetings and then take a vacation on Martha's Vineyard. President Obama should become his own principal spokesperson. Franklin Roosevelt personally gave his fireside chats. He also became the greatest President of the 20th Century.

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