-- by Tom Phillips
One of my retirement hobbies is drafting speeches for President Obama. I lie awake composing responses to national crises, and then imagine myself begging and pleading with him to speak up, to rouse the nation, to say and do what needs to be done.
Surely there are those in Washington who feel the same way, and may even have access to the President, and the skill to compose an effective response to something like Hurricane Sandy, or the slaughter of kindergarten children in
. But the President is clearly hesitant to lead
his forces into battle, even when he knows he’s right and the nation is behind him. He did manage to mention climate change in his
election night victory speech, and has now solemnly promised to use his power
to try to prevent more massacres. But on both fronts, he has
left it to others to talk specifics. The
President has a Bully Pulpit, but it stands empty, week after traumatic week. At best he is a ghostly presence, raising hope and offering consolation, but without leading or pointing the way ahead. Connecticut
Full disclosure: I voted for Obama, twice, though I supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. But my original reservation about him stands: that he doesn’t have enough experience, that he doesn’t know enough about politics or life to be the “transformational leader” that his admirers expected him to be.
It took him four years to learn the most basic principle of bargaining, that you don’t negotiate against yourself. Finally he has stiffened his back against Republicans who want to preserve tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. But he seems so mesmerized by the job of not budging on the “fiscal cliff” that he has so far failed to step up to huge, sudden opportunities to lead, on gun control and climate change.
The president reportedly hopes to go down in history as one of
greatest Presidents, and he has even called in presidential historians to
advise him on how greatness is achieved.
I don’t know what the scholars have told him, but I hope it would
include something about seizing the moment.
Rather than wasting his time ruminating about how to be great, a
President needs to take advantage of events, and the emotions they set off, to force
a change in the underlying political dynamics, to make politically unpalatable
actions seem unavoidable. The worst
possible thing Obama could do is to follow his anti-dramatic instincts, and the
advice of nay-saying conservatives, and “let emotions cool off” before acting. Psychological research shows that emotion is
necessary for making decisions, and this is as true of nations as it is of
Obama has a couple of opportunities left: a second inaugural, and a State of
address in January. Hurricane The
and the slaughter in Newtown
will still be open wounds, and Congress could yet be shamed into action, if the
president could move the nation to demand it.
If I were writing the speech, he would call for action across the board:
let’s go over the cliff, raise taxes and immediately plough the added
revenue back into the economy. We could
create jobs laying the groundwork for a new infrastructure, built to both reduce
and withstand global warming. We could
buy back guns from the public, and beat them into plowshares. Add universal health care and immigration
reform, and you have a vision of a new American century. We’d give it a name, in the tradition
of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier. Sandy
But I'm not writing the speech, and I’m not going to frustrate myself with imaginary pleadings. It’s up to the president to seize this moment, and make of it what he can.
Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips