Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Obama: Embracing the Orphan

Taking full blame for the Bay of Pigs debacle, JFK fell back on an old maxim, "Victory has a thousand fathers. Defeat is an orphan."

If the polls are right, Barack Obama has an unblessed event due in November, with no other claimants to paternity amid all the analysis of what when wrong in his love affair with the American people that looked so promising two years ago.

At this low point, he may want to look back at Kennedy's experience as a guide to dealing with adversity, admitting his part in it and putting the lessons learned to good use, as JFK did during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

With only nine weeks of campaigning left, the President will no doubt hammer away at the economic mess he inherited and the intractability of his GOP opposition: "We have spent the last 20 months governing. They spent the last 20 months politicking."

Yesterday, he raked Republicans for "pure partisan politics" in blocking his small-business assistance bill. True enough but, for a fearful and angry electorate craving relief and reassurance rather than explanations for its distress, that won't head off an Election Day disaster.

As the November train wreck comes closer, even sympathetic pundits are in despair. Paul Krugman foresees "a federal government paralyzed by an opposition with no interest in helping the president govern" and urges Obama, without hope that he will, to offer "major new initiatives on the economic front in particular, if only to shake up the political dynamic."

E. J. Dionne is more realistic in advising the President "to engage the nation in an extended dialogue about what holds all of his achievements together" and explain "why his attitude toward government makes more sense than the scattershot conservative attacks on everything Washington might do to improve the nation's lot."

More than that, Barack Obama must rise to the challenge by doing what he does best--creating a context for political dialogue, as he did during the campaign by converting the Jeremiah Wright embarrassment into an occasion for a deeper discussion of race.

The subject this time would be the role of government in Americans' lives, which has been left to Tea Party caricature as oppressive, with no appreciation of its unique power to overcome adversity and encourage social justice.

This would involve the President admitting his own shortcomings by acknowledging, for one example, how the good intentions of health care reform ended up with a "victory" at the expense of widespread public understanding and support as well as explaining how complicated and imperfect have been the workings of economic stimulus and government bailouts

John F. Kennedy grew in stature during his time in office. Taking full responsibility for the Bay of Pigs, he learned that "an error doesn't have to become a mistake unless you fail to admit it."

At this crossroads of his presidency, Barack Obama has to rise above the swarm of political pygmies that is dragging his administration down by engaging Americans in a discussion--and demonstration--of what real leadership involves.

He can start with an honest critique of his own.

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