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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Where is Obama’s Vision?

Many critics have lamented the fact that President Obama’s speech before the Charlotte DNC was uninspired; and although it presented some nuts-and-bolts programs and policies, there was no unifying vision, no resounding theme, no statement of political philosophy, no clear enunciation of purpose, and no vision.

Ross Douthat writing in the NY Times (9.9.12) said “A weary-seeming Obama delivered perhaps the fourth-best major address at his own convention — a plodding, hectoring speech that tacitly acknowledged that this White House is out of ideas, out of options and no longer the master of its fate.”

Matthew Taylor writing in the Observer (9.9.12 Party Conferences: Where are the Big Solutions?) said: “The party conferences left a hollow feeling. Quite apart from the unseemly pandering to the prejudices of a weak and narrow activist base, the mixture of vague values and small solutions that politicians conventionally offer for our nation's pressing problems will feel desperately inadequate. Speech writers may abhor big theory, but without it we can't see the barriers to change”

I have been waiting for Obama to articulate his vision, to explain to Americans exactly what he stands for and where he intends to lead the country.  ‘Hope’ which symbolized the historic rise of a black American to the highest office in the land, is now a faded and much less relevant slogan.  ‘Where is the hope for ordinary Americans?”, Republicans howl. Nothing, however, has replaced Obama’s earlier vision that hope can be realized by every American, and that Obama is just the man to preside over the remaking of America.  Is he a populist, committed to his fiber, to regenerate and renew the middle class?  If so, he lacks the passionate, almost religious oath to the poor taken by LBJ to eliminate poverty. 

Is he deeply offended by income inequality and committed to the redistribution of wealth, espousing the principles of the Occupy Movement?  Is he a liberal reformer who sees in the crisis of banking and Wall Street, in the new baroque and sinister financial instruments, and in the indifferent manipulation of low-income homebuyers, a need for a complete restructuring of American capitalism?  Is he a monetarist who believes that the Fed is the Fifth Estate, an equal partner in righting America’s economic wrongs? Is he a Clintonesque middle-of-the-road Democrat who ‘feels your pain’ but also reforms the outdated and outmoded social programs of an earlier era?

Vision is extremely important for this or any election, for the American electorate has shown again and again its impatience with policy details, its single-issue politics, and its political choices made on the basis of feeling and emotion rather than logical, rational analysis of ideas.  In this electoral environment it will never be enough for Obama to explain how he will create jobs, or how his tax policies will be redistributive while encouraging private enterprise, or how he envisages educational reform.  He needs to unify all his programmatic and policy initiatives and present them simply and, yes, emotionally to the voting public.

Looked at more crassly, Obama needs Madison Avenue.  Advertising has always embraced The Unique Selling Proposition – the principle that each product has one specific, unique characteristic which positions it above and beyond all others. Avis became known as the company that tries harder – a very American characteristic and one that symbolized diligence, efficiency, and customer satisfaction.  FedEx quickly became the go-to company for fast, efficient, reliable service.  “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight”, FedEx said. M&M candies “Melt in your mouth, not in your hand” was classic, and the consumer could immediately and permanently visualize the product.

The Republicans have always been masters at this technique.  Republicans and Democrats alike know what they stand for – small government, lower taxes, private enterprise, individual freedom.  Simple, memorable, direct, and perfectly clear.  Policies and programs are built around these principles, not the other way around.

Looked at more substantively, vision is only the outward expression of the structural reforms required to achieve it.  Any policies, whether a rejuvenation of the middle class, the reform of Wall Street, or the reconfiguration of American government to include the Fed as the fourth branch, requires not just Administration policy or legislative support. It requires the active participation of all segments of public and civil society.  A more just and equitable society can never be achieved without addressing the hyper-individualism now embraced by most Americans, far from ‘the good life well-lived’ of the Enlightenment. A well-educated populace can be assured not simply through public school reform but through a more radical inclusion of private education; an embrace of talent, enterprise, and intelligence and not just inclusion and diversity.  Wall Street can never be reformed unless the old values of honesty, honor, and duty replace greed and avarice.

Matthew Taylor goes on to observe:

Reflecting the way we have evolved as a species, there are three fundamental ways of thinking about and pursuing social change: hierarchical authority, solidarity and individual aspiration. So, for example, if we want seriously to tackle social injustice, it will require a strong and consistent framework of policies, substantive shifts in social norms and expectations, and new ways for individuals to pursue their interests. Successful societies, organizations and policies direct and combine authority, solidarity and aspiration. This is where the problem lies. Today, the sources of social power are weak or distorted.

Taylor concludes:

To restore public faith in social progress and to develop credible solutions to difficult problems we need to renew our sources of power. This means radically different ways of thinking about and exercising political and organizational leadership. It means a much deeper understanding of what binds people together and how social networks and shared values can be mobilized for progressive ends.

Obama, then, needs both vision and the commitment it will take to address the structural reforms required for all major reforms.   He must not only offer government programs, but must address the obligations of individuals, communities, and civic organizations.  This is what great leaders have always done.  Obama is not doing it, and may lose the election because of it.

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