Barack Obama sees only what he wants to see; hears only what he wants to hear; and says only what the teleprompter tells him to say.
When he goes out this evening to address the Democratic National Convention, this is what he will see, hear, and say —
With 15% of Americans either out of work, no longer looking for work, or finding only part-time employment, the president will see further evidence of his own greatness. It is thanks to him that unemployment isn’t 40 percent or more.
With the federal government borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar it spends and the nation now more than $16 trillion in debt, he will pretend that there is only one thing that prevents us from spending our way out of this mess, and that is the failure of the Republicans to support higher taxes on “millionaires and billionaires” — meaning, in fact, any individual earning $200,000 or more, which includes every member of Congress, and which more importantly includes hundreds of thousands of small business owners and entrepreneurs collectively responsible for many millions of jobs.
And even as he gets ready to compound the wreckage with a massive tax increase that will hit everyone who still pays any income tax, he will portray himself as a greater champion of the middle class than all of the greats on Mount Rushmore put together — plus Ronald Reagan and maybe Bill Clinton.
And because he sees only want he wants to see and hears only wants to hear, the president will pound away at few well-known (but quite non-existent) straw men, turning the facts upside down whenever it suits his purpose.
For the umpty-umpth time, he will decry those who espouse “trickle-down economics,” the practice of “greed,” and the view “everyone is on his own”; he will reject “the view that government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity”; and he will denounce those (and who are these wicked people?) who go around saying that “regulation should be gutted for the sake of a quick profit.”
IT IS NOT AS THOUGH this president has never been in a tight spot before — in having to act fast in making his own record disappear from plain view. It happened on at least one occasion.
In his memoir of his early life, Dreams from My Father, Obama tells of quelling a revolt against his leadership when he was working in Chicago as a community organizer. To recap the story, the future president — then age 22 or 23 — had five community activists working for him as unpaid volunteers. En masse they decided to quit. He pleaded for time.
“We don’t have more time,” one of the volunteers replied. “We can’t keep on making promises to our people, and then have nothing happen. We need something now.” Obama looked around the room and saw “a jury that’s delivered an unfavorable verdict.”
But of course the hero (Barack himself) found a way out this seemingly hopeless position. Looking out the window, he spotted a group of boys — “their hoods pulled over their heads like miniature monks” — who were busy vandalizing an abandoned building. Suddenly, he felt himself able to move from defense to offense.
Pointing out the window, he turned to one of the volunteers and demanded to know, “What do you suppose is going to happen to those boys out there?” This passage follows in Dreams:
“No, I’m just asking you a question… what’s going to happen to those boys? Who’s going to make sure they get a fair shot? The alderman? The social workers? The gangs?”
I could hear my voice rising, but I didn’t let up. You know, I didn’t come here ’cause I needed a job. I came here ’cause Marty said there were some people who were serious about doing something to change their neighborhoods.… If you don’t think anything’s happened after working with me, I’ll be the first one to tell you to quit. But if you all are planning to quit now, then I want you to answer my question.”
And that’s it: crisis averted. After this fine little speech… this nice little diversion, if you will… they all agreed to soldier on as unpaid volunteers going through the motions of organizing meetings and rallies that never lead to any practical result. The closing words from this scene in Dreams are:
“You handled that meeting pretty good, Barack. Seems like you know what you’re doing.”
“I don’t, Mona. I don’t have a clue.”
She laughed. “Well, I promise I won’t tell nobody.”
“I appreciate that, Mona. I sure do appreciate that.”
However, what is most notable about this story is not the young man’s presence of mind in making a Houdini-like escape from a tricky situation. It is the plethora of words and the absence of action. Obama and his followers did not rush out of the church where they were gathered to talk to the boys or to offer any counsel. Nor did they take up the topic of youth at risk in any subsequent meeting mentioned in Obama’s book. They did nothing at all.
Here I am reminded of one of the enduring images of Obama’s first term: the picture of the president striding briskly to the lectern to address the press at the end of so-called “beer summit.” Trailing several paces behind him were Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley — the policeman who had been unfairly accused of racism in the earlier arrest of the professor. It is the cop who stops to help the handicapped professor down the White House steps, not his longtime friend, the president.
IF YOU ARE A TRUE progressive — as this president surely is — it makes no difference whether your policies work or not. You do not expect to be judged on the basis of results, but only on the basis of intentions. Looking good, feeling good, and sounding good always trump doing good.
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