Obama's image crisis

More than a half-century ago, the Democrats had a candidate who in some ways was sort of a white Barack Obama.

His name was Adlai Stevenson. He was a brilliant speechmaker, also from Illinois, smart, sane and witty. Once, an adoring woman told him that all the thinking people in the country were behind him.

"That's not enough, madam. I need a majority," he said. They ran him for president twice, but both times he faced America's iconic war hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and never had a chance.

Today, while Adlai has a bunch of schools named after him, he's mostly been forgotten by everyone under retirement age. Part of his problem was that he came across as an elitist. He mostly refused to wrestle around in the mud with the clowns, and won the lasting respect and admiration of college faculty everywhere.

Unfortunately, he also lost two elections by enormous landslides. What's going on now with the fellow in the White House seems heartbreakingly similar. You would never know it from the so-called mainstream media, but Barack Obama has actually notched a fairly stunning record of accomplishment in barely a year-and-a-half in office. Saving the auto industry, for one thing.

George W. Bush, to be sure, cleverly gave Chrysler and General Motors enough cash in December 2008 to enable them to sputter into the Obama administration and become Obama's problem.

Have we forgotten how the radical Republican right-wingers in the U.S. Senate opposed helping Detroit's auto industry? Alabama's Richard Shelby, Tennessee's Bob Corker, and the half-senile Jim Bunning of Kentucky, who once pitched for the Detroit Tigers?

Had John McCain been elected president, Chrysler would almost certainly not exist. General Motors might not either. But thanks to President Obama, both now look like they are making it. General Motors is not only profitable, it just hired Daniel Akerson, a man who had been a strong John McCain supporter, as its new CEO, at a salary of a cool $9 million a year.

Much of what the Obama administration has done has been vastly important but largely invisible; i.e., keeping the banking system and the economy from collapsing. He succeeded at that.

Succeeded, thanks to the stimulus spending in large part. Yes, the deficit has skyrocketed. Consider, however, the alternative. Pick up an old paperback copy of Caroline Bird's classic The Invisible Scar, about life during the Great Depression, and read about what happened when we had a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference, as John F. Kennedy used to say.

Yes, President Obama's economic policies have saved us from worse. Not to mention that he accomplished something presidents from Truman to Clinton tried and failed to do — get a bill passed establishing universal health care. More lies have been told about this legislation than any I can remember. But basically it requires most folks to get coverage from a private insurer at affordable rates, and requires the insurance companies to sell it to them. It also says they can't deny you coverage if you are sick, and allows kids to stay on their parents' policies until they are 26.

Yet, as far as I can tell, the vast majority of Americans don't realize this. From the coverage I've seen, they evidently think Obamacare means "socialized medicine" that will cost them huge sums to have death panels decide whether they should live or die. And — oh, yes — take their tax dollars for abortions.

The truth is pretty close to the exact opposite. However, despite all this, President Obama has been a howling failure in two major areas: populism and public relations. 

Taking populism first: He should have been doing what his fellow elitist Franklin D. Roosevelt did with such great political success and effect — class warfare. That's what the bleating, bought zombies on Fox would call it, at any rate. Obama wants to avoid anything that could be called class warfare. I say let's embrace it. For eight years we had an administration that did everything it could for the top one-tenth of 1 percent of the population at the expense of the rest of us.

There was a vast transfer of wealth to those people earning more than a million dollars a year. So it's time to reverse that flow. Reverse that flow, and shout from the housetops that you are doing it.

Here's what FDR said when he was running for re-election: 

"We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred. I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master."

That set the newspaper editorial writers howling. But several weeks later, FDR won every state in the nation except two tiny ones. That's partly because of the perception that he was putting people back to work. He did so partly by putting them to work for the government, through something called the WPA — Works Progress Administration. President Obama's biggest mistake, in my view, was not doing the same thing. While the recession is over, it is taking far longer for people to get jobs again than anyone thought.

What the president should have done is establish something like an American Infrastructure Corps, right at the start — and put unemployed white- and blue-collar people to work building and replacing bridges and roads and sewer systems. That would have been instantly popular, and they would have been doing vastly important work. But the president elected not to do that. My suspicion is that he was afraid of being called a socialist.

He should have known they'd call him one regardless. Now, he's proposing spending $50 billion on infrastructure, but probably too late to have a chance of getting through Congress.

Obama needs to throw down the gauntlet, say, "if this be socialism, let's make the most of it," and start tooting his own horn. So do all the Democrats. They also need to remind voters of who and what the Republicans are, and what they did to them.

They need courage and guts. By the way, what is the one completely socialist institution in this nation? It's one every right-winger passionately loves: the armed forces. Go figure.

Refusing to debate:
Rick Snyder, the GOP candidate for governor is, as of this writing, refusing to debate Virg Bernero, his Democratic opponent. Why? His camp is offering various bullshit reasons, but the real one is that he has a huge lead in the polls.

Nobody is too sure what Snyder stands for or would do as governor, and he likes it that way. He figures that if he can continue to be all things to all people, he can win by a landslide. But if he doesn't adequately explain his positions and won't risk trying to defend them in spirited debate, he shouldn't get anybody's vote.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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