By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
"When the torrent sweeps the man against a boulder, you must expect him to scream, and you need not be surprised if the scream is sometimes a theory."
So said Robert Louis Stevenson, explaining how harsh social and economic conditions spawn political movements and revolutions. It is a bit of wisdom that Barack Obama may want to consider.
American working and middle-class families are getting swept away. The president is trying to get them a lifeline. He needs to supply them with a theory as well—before someone beats him to it.
To use a tired political cliché, Obama lacks a narrative. He needs a story that tells us how we got here, what went wrong, and how and why and what he will do to fix it.
It's not enough to say what won't work anymore. If we are indeed post-partisan, if the Left v. Right dichotomy is, as he says, obsolete, then Barack, what's the plan?
Without a theory, the smart energy grid and the rural broadband access and the electronic medical records and all the other little pieces in the stimulus legislation lack majesty. They sound like good stuff to many of us, but so what?
And to some among the rest of us, they reek of porky opportunism. Without the protection of theory, they are vulnerable as...mere spending.
Obama needs a statement of principles. Take his medical records and child health care initiatives. Both welcome. Both laudable. Both worthy of considerable bipartisan support. What has been lacking is a bold presidential declaration:
Health care for Americans in the 21st century is no longer a benefit that some get and others don't. It is a moral and strategic necessity as we compete in a global economy. We're gonna start by cutting inexcusable red tape and waste, and by helping the kids, and then we will move on to adults and before I've left Washington no American is ever going to have to worry about how to pay the doctor or the pharmacist or the hos pital again. Not. Ever. Again.
In the absence of that kind of presidential table-setting, the Republicans have done a good job, and the Democrats a bad one, at defining the stimulus debate.
The conservatives gave Obama ample warning of their strategy. Long before the stimulus bill was even drafted, the GOP and its messengers were cherry-picking items from goofy political wish lists—like the Las Vegas mob museum—and using them to paint the whole exercise as a typically lazy and wasteful congressional boondoggle. It is unfortunate that the Democrats fell into the trap. Theory might have protected them.
Ronald Reagan (Too much government is bad) and Franklin Roosevelt (Unbridled greed is evil) knew how to wrap their actions in context. Less successful presidents, like Jimmy Carter, never learned. Obama needs to begin.
The State of the Union speech will give the new president an opportunity. A whole fearful nation will be paying attention—looking for the plan. He needs to use that hour to sketch the next chapter in the American story, and show us how we fit in.