Monday, July 20, 2009

The Fragility of Hope

I’ve been very sad this weekend, because of a synchronistic series of events that clarified my growing sense of dismay about Barack Obama’s approach to some major issues, and the promise of a unique, new, young president that is beginning to feel broken.

Friday afternoon, I gave a little editorial counsel to a friend in p.r. who’s working with a conservationist client, which naturally brought the many environmental problems that besiege us to the forefront of my mind. Then Friday night, I watched Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. His guests included two “radical” environmen-talists: Mary Sweeters, organizing manager of the controversial Greenpeace USA and Erich Pica, director of domestic programs at Friends of the Earth, an influential organization with 77 chapters worldwide.

Greenpeace USA recently staged a dramatic act of civil disobedience by scaling Mt. Rushmore and unfurling a massive banner from its famous presidential heads that said "America honors leaders, not politicians. Stop global warming." When asked to explain their purpose for the demonstration, Sweeters said, “Here you have four great presidents who really stepped up when they were faced with some of the biggest challenges that our nation has seen. And we felt like we wanted to send President Obama the same message. That we want him to step up in a similar manner and really lead the country the way that it needs to be led.”

Erich Pica seconded the emotion by explaining that the Waxman-Markey Climate Bill, which recently squeaked through Congress and will soon be further eviscerated in the Senate, is toothless and totally devoid of American global leadership, because it sorely lags behind the rest of the industrial world. He said: “The bill doesn't reduce global warming emissions in the United States fast enough…[and] the emission reduction targets are just inadequate… It strips away the EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions…which is a key tool that environmentalists have been using to shut down coal plants. …It gives away a tremendous amount of money. Hundreds of billions of dollars to the polluting industries that have, essentially, caused the problem of global warming. The Duke Energies, Shells, Conocos of the world. Gives a lot of free giveaways in terms of permits…and…this is kind of overwhelming the entire system: it relies on Wall Street to help solve the problem of global warming…by allowing them to manage the trading system that's created underneath this bill.”

I’ve certainly known that there was grumbling in many quarters about the inadequacy of the bill, but I didn’t know any of the specifics until I saw this program, and I didn’t realize the extent to which the president has been actively advocating for [debilitating] compromise. Indeed, in his prelude to the interview, Moyers quoted a recent piece in The Economist that said of Obama, "Rather than shaping public opinion, he is running scared of it. And so, even more, is Congress."

On Saturday, I got a panicky e-mail from Planned Parenthood explaining that the Health Care Reform Bill currently being crafted in Congress is being lobbied against by literally dozens of anti-choice groups who want to see shocking restrictions on women’s health care (not just decreased access to abortion, but a lessening of basic, routine, women’s health care, including contraception) built into the program; in other words, giving more women even less than they’re getting now. I was naturally incensed. At Planned Parenthood's request, I sent letters to my congressman and senators. And I always use my legal Reverend title on such letters and petitions, to give the appearance that this is the sound of the status quo clapping...

Then Saturday night, I saw Anderson Cooper’s pretty-good CNN report on the president’s recent trip to Africa, during which he and his family visited Cape Ghost Castle in Ghana: a fortress, a port, an underground city of indescribable slave dungeons where, over several hundred years, literally millions of Africans were brought and gruesomely imprisoned and tortured before being stacked and stored like cargo on slave ships that took them to the Caribbean and The New World.

This is not part of the president’s personal history, but it is for the First Lady, a direct descendant of slaves and slave owners. The president spoke poignantly about the eerie horror that still lingers like a mist over the place, and what a powerful impact the visit had on him, his wife and their daughters – whom he told to try and imagine what it must have been like for the millions of free humans who were captured, torn away from everything they knew, were treated like beasts and transported like inanimate objects to a life of brutal slavery in a far away land. He also told them to imagine what it was like to be in the slave business or a slave owner, to have complete and ruthless power over the lives of others -- not to sympathize with them, but to better understand the human capacity for inhuman behavior.

Barack Obama is a man who understands pain and injustice and suffering and bondage. He’s a man with affection and respect for the earth. And, I still believe he’s a very smart politician who wants to be an effective and meaningful president, to do good, to do right. I believe he wants this just as much as he wants to make history with a magnificent legacy. You can’t be a shrinking violet and become president. You have to crave power and want to use it.

Which is why I, like a growing number of other Americans, am feeling disappointed, confused, even betrayed. In his effort to transform Washington into a place where law and policy are made in a spirit of unity and cooperation, with everyone having a place at the table where they can sit with dignity and feel they’re being heard, he’s losing sight of something important: he won! He has the power to make the kinds of changes he believes in and that he made us believe in.

But he may blow it, because he’s trying to show that he can play the game better and in a new way. How he achieves what he wants to achieve seems to be as important to him as the goal itself. I think that was a marvelous idea. I don’t think it’s going to work. I think the time has come for him to do the right things by (you should excuse the expression…) any means necessary. Force it down the opposition’s throats. That’s the power of power!

I got addicted to the NBC-TV series The West Wing (pictured above) when it went into syndication on Bravo a few years back. I watched it avidly, repeatedly. It was like comfort food. In the midst of the George W. Bush administration, the idea of an educated, eloquent, caring president surrounded by a staff of bright idealists was enchanting. Interestingly, after Obama was elected, when I watched The West Wing, the dream seemed to pale against the reality.

The series’ President Bartlett was also a liberal who wanted to play the political game smartly – and as a result, as the series progressed, he didn’t accomplish most of what he wanted. In a pivotal episode, “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett,” the president is chastised by his chief of staff for playing it safe, and for being more concerned with winning a second term than getting the job done. By the end of the episode, the president confesses to being weary of a sense of pointlessness and failure, and vows to do what’s needed, even if it means he doesn’t get re-elected (which, by the way, he does, of course).

I say it’s time to Let Obama Be Obama. Be the firebrand, the shaman, the Minister of Hope you were during the campaign. Don’t sell your constituency of believers down the river in an effort to win the support of those who will never be on your side. We need new climate policy. We need new health care policy. But they have to be good, meaty, make-real-change policies. We need to put people ahead of banks and corporations, to put Main Street ahead of Wall Street.

Let Obama Be Obama. Let the revolution begin.

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