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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Please Mr. President, where’s the “we”?

This week the American public sent a strong rebuke to their President. The Senate seat that has been both Democratic and Kennedy since 1952 was lost to Republican Scott Brown. To the conservative press this is vindication that Americans were hoodwinked into making the wrong choice in 2008. For the Democrats the shock of a 30% vote swing in the bluest of blue states has yet to wear off, but the question each of them must be wondering is why?

Democratic Senator Bob Casey suggested in an interview with Fox News yesterday that the main message from the Massachusetts election is the need to focus on the economy, the frustrations about job growth, and the perception that Washington isn't listening.

My sense is that the frustration goes much deeper than that. The frustration is more akin to a sense of betrayal on the President’s main election platform. This may be intentional, but I doubt it. I suspect it is due more to a lack of appreciation about the nature of the very profound bargain Obama actually made with the American people. To be sure he made promises about the war in Iraq; about health care; about getting the US out of its economic mess; and about getting people back to work. To be honest he really can’t be faulted for his aggressive pursuit of this agenda from day one, in stark contrast to the laissez-faire approach to problems adopted by his predecessor. So why the discontent?

Since assuming the Presidency, the economic and international policies of his Administration have not differed greatly from his predecessor. Sone might suggest his health care reforms do, except that they have become so watered down as to become mere incrementalism at best. Groups from the left or right debate his strategies and his successes, but honestly one year is hardly sufficient to make much of a dent in the issues he has been grappling with. So why the headlong flight from the President’s tent?

All this does not come close to explaining what has the President in trouble with his own constituency. The previous President, for instance, was duplicitous and subject to course reversals on many fronts, without his core constituency beginning to desert him. So again why is Obama apparently being abandoned?

To answer this one needs to keep in mind that the promises about the war, health care, the economy -- these were not the ones that got the President elected. Barrack Obama was elected on the basis of three words. “Yes we can”. In so many ways these three words resonated deeply in the consciousness of Americans and people all around the world.

Yes we can: be reassured you’re not alone.

Yes we can: don’t be afraid. No problem is too big that we can not tackle it together.

Yes we can: because the problem is not for someone else to solve for us but for us to solve together.

Yes we can: because we don’t have to wait. We can begin to make changes from today.

Yes we can: because each and every one of us can contribute ideas, energy and resources.

Yes we can: because the government doesn’t have all the answers, it is not per se “in charge”. In fact the government is dependent on every one of us to assume a level of leadership.

Yes we can: because we are all decision makers and owners in this collective enterprise.

Yes we can: because while the solution may begin with us, we can trust that the government will be by our side.

Yes we can: because we as a people have a long history of working out our differences so that together we can build a better future.

Yes we can: because we are not special interests but we all of us together: men and women, young and old, rich and poor, tenth generation and new immigrant, First Nations people and all who have come afterwards.

Yes we can: because we are all willing to share in the burden of creating a new future and assume a commitment to each other for that future.

Yes we can: because we are not trying to fix the problems of and in the past but we are working towards constructing a new American future.

Yes we can: because we are filled with hope – a hope founded on the strength of our togetherness.

At the time, Barrack Obama may have only meant “we” the Democratic Party or his future administration. He may only have meant a small cadre of advisors and leaders. Whatever his meaning, that was certainlky not what the American people heard. Among those long accustomed to leaders who sought power for themselves, who led for some and not others, who showed little concern for the problems of the people, who showed no remorse for their lies and their tactics of manipulation over people they had promised to represent, “yes we can” was received as nothing less than an offer for a new moral contract between the citizenry and their government. “Yes we can” was an offer of partnership over patriarchy; stewardship over leadership; and an offer to return to democratic principles over the mutated version that democracy has become.

Americans were thirsty for this change. The new social contract Obama offered seemed like water in the desert. They willingly embraced him as the vehicle for re-assuming the power of their own citizenship.

Consequently, the very fact that the process of governance has not perceptibly changed since the Bush Administration may seem to some as evidence that Americans may voted for the right idea but the wrong person.

I would suggest that this amounts to breaking the profound but subtle moral contract he made with Americans during his election. Where is the “we” in his speeches and remarks today that was so ubiquitous and inclusive on the campaign trail? Mr. Obama became President Obama, the leader of the free world, and leaders must of a sense take the bull by the horns and lead, yes? That’s unfortunately where the problem lies.

He didn’t get elected on the basis of taking charge. He got elected on the basis of an expectation that he could facilitate everyone else taking charge. The President may have been overcome by the great demands of each day and found it easier to fit in with long established traditions. He may have been seduced by leadership power offered by the Presidency. Yet his contract with Americans positioned him as a collaborative leader and champion of the significant cultural change – the social learning, the new attitudes, arrangements, and conventions -- that were implied by “yes we can”.

Instead, the president seems increasingly identified with the traditional role of leadership which Americans so obviously wanted to change. In doing so, he knowingly or unknowingly steals the right of ownership, the right to make a difference, from everyone who elected him. In his administration it is not “yes we can” but “yes I can”.

I’m in no position to judge whether this breach was accidental or intentional. I am willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt. Power is after all very seductive especially when it is willingly offered. But if he is to avoid being judged harshly in future polls and by history, he needs to begin using his position to demonstrate the truth and power of “yes we can”. In a sense he needs to stop trying to have all the answers, and have faith that the answers he needs can and will be found among the many Americans willing to step forward and share his burden. Whether he realizes it or not the American project has become fundamentally more participatory.

Americans every day are doing incredible things together to better their children, their economy, their environment, their communities and for each other. The Office of the Presidency has a power like no other to showcase these collaborative actions to the nation and to the world. To do so would reaffirm the power of “yes we can”. Alternatively, if Americans are resisting what appears to many to be a top down implementation of health care, then he should walk away in favour of facilitating a process in which all Americans can see that they have the opportunity to shape a system of health care bottom up. Why impose a system and prove that Americans can’t? Of what use is winning the Senate battle on health care, if you lose the trust of the nation?

Whatever he does, he needs to recognize the need for restoring trust. The President made a fundamental contract for change, “yes we can”, and then apparently reneged. In his campaign he successfully called forth the spirit of all the things that make America and Americans great but in his recent actions he has tried to put that spirit back in a box. But it just won’t go. Americans want to realize the truth of it, “yes we can”.

Christopher Wilson, January 23, 2010


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