Monday, November 1, 2010

Obama and Fear

President Obama's remarks about fear and American voter perceptions are once again raising the charge that Obama is an elitist who views the anger felt by American voters in this year's midterm election as pathological. According to Peter Baker's reporting in The New York Times the President said:

“Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared,” he told a roomful of doctors who chipped in at least $15,200 each to Democratic coffers. “And the country is scared, and they have good reason to be.”

Besides the impolitic quality of the remark what is most telling is the President's assumption that facts and science normally carry the day. I have no doubt that the President was born in the US but times like this make one wonder whether he was living here during the last twenty years. More importantly, where is the effort to speak to the fear (rather than about it). Fear comes with historical context. Today's Americans are responding to a Great Depression level financial crisis through the metaphors and meanings shaped by decades of wars on crime, in which the basic economic security of middle class Americans was taken as given, and their protection from the misconduct of deviant others around them, was taken as the primary field for governance.

That context has done a lot to train Americans to focus on questions like, who is the criminal and how harsh is the punishment. In that kind of world, bailouts of misbehaving banks are inherently subversive, and immoral; and solutions that spend money on "stimulating" the economy are expensive, pointless and perhaps damaging. It is because of this orientation that after a devastating financial crisis caused by lack of regulation and increasing concentration of economic wealth, business executives can run for office all over the country on the theme of reducing regulation and taxes on the rich.

There may have been a way to govern this crisis through crime. Investigations and trials of major Wall Street executives would have followed and perhaps a government take over of the worst actors. Obama might have tried to have BP's chief executive during the Gulf crisis arrested and seized the companies US assets in symbolic "raids"before television cameras. All of that might have worked to give him the legitimacy he needs to re-regulate the financial markets and drive new economic investment. Of course unlike the usual suspects of governing through crime, Wall Street executives are not without influence, lawyers, and media control. Given how much they have whined about President Obama's rather modest actions, we must assume that their response to that kind of demonization campaign would have been massive (and perhaps lethal).

In any event, the time for that kind of strategy is probably passed. Instead the President has no choice but to take on the way Americans think about fear directly; not by whining about how irrational they are, but by providing a different framework for evaluating our fears. In January the President will have a chance to deliver his state of union speech to a national audience in a chamber where the noise of a much larger and probably triumphant Republican caucus will be loud. He needs to put aside the usual laundry list of legislative priorities and talk about fear. Those fears that Americans can no longer afford to indulge in like fears of the criminality of immigrants; and those fears, like global warming, that we can no longer afford to ignore. The President should challenge the leaders of Congress to come to two televised White House conferences, one on immigration and one on climate change. Let each side nominate experts to be heard from, but insist that the leadership sit down with him in front of cameras to talk about what the facts show about these two burning issues and explain to the American people what they intend to do about them.

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