President Obama got a shellacking in the mid-term election. I hope health care reform isn't in jeopardy. I hope we find a way out of Afghanistan, and I hope if we hit another terrorist or financial crisis the Republicans and Democrats can find a way to work with each other.
But I think there's a bigger lesson here, and this is one of those moments when you can talk about lessons in politics. Most of the time people feel it's futile, and nothing can be done, but I think this is one of those moments that there is a message to hear, not from the insiders, but from the voters. This is what I hear.
First, I hear paradox. How can you make sense of a voter who feels the government should be doing more to create jobs, yet feels the government should stay out of things business does better. Who thinks the deficit is the number one problem but thinks we should spend more to create jobs. Who, like Reagan, thinks government is the problem, yet thinks the military is great. Or says keep your hands off my Medicare, while rallying against "socialized medicine."
Times are hard, and people think they're getting worse, and we feel powerless to do anything about it,. Except at one moment, when we pull the lever in the voting booth. That's the only time we have to be listened to. Otherwise, you and I have no way to make things better. So we do the thing that will be heard. Voting for the incumbent is a silent act. Voting for the first African-American president in 2008, was very audible. Voting for a Tea Party candidate in 2010 is the same kind of thing. That's how reconcile the two. Both are heard, both send a message. I want things to get better.
It was and will be especially bad for Obama because not only did he campaign on Change We Can Believe In (and in that he's far from unusual, most candidates run on change) but if you look at his skin color, and his youth, and his intelligence, and the way he organized using the Internet, you can see why this time around we thought things really might change. Not that the Republicans would all of a sudden stop trying to take money out of our pockets and give it to their friends in the defense industry and on Wall Street, that wasn't the change we were expecting. No, we were told that volunteerism was going to be the new norm. We would all have a way to pitch in to help. To make a difference. He wouldn't have been up against the Republicans if, on coming into office, he set up a Craigslist for volunteering, with meetups at a community level every month to talk about ways of making things work better. And during the rest of the time, no talk, just action. Keep the streets clean. Help out the homeless. Create new flows of information about how things are working, or not.
I think he had that opportunity, to carry the new way his campaign lifted him up and use the same energy to lift up everything. At least then, if it failed, it wouldn't have been his faillure, it would have been ours. But he didn't even try. Not even a bit.
I can point you to the exact moment of my disappointment. I was suckered by Obama's pitch. "The fierce urgency of now." I thought that when the new whitehouse.gov went live it would be about us, the people of the United States, but of course it wasn't -- it was about them -- those who took the standard places in the White House to do what they always do. Maybe slightly different. But nothing like the change we were promised, and some of us expected.
If Obama wants to know why he's being treated like a disappointment, the answer is simple, we are disappointed. Not so much that he's in the pocket of the bankers, and we're still in Afghanistan and Iraq for some reason no one understands, even though we were told that Iraq would already be behind us, and we (incorrectly) assumed that meant Afghanistan too. We need change, we need get our people involved, at least those who want to be involved, working to make things better every day of every year. Not just on the first Tuesday of every other November.