Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Obama Will Survive the Doom Prophets(reprint)

Authour's note: My apologies, but a condensed version of this column appeared in the Welland Tribune on April 17th, 2009. I posted the lengthier version here after its initial printing, but then needed to pull it off to double check the proper release date. Enjoy.


I paused on the sidewalk outside the pub. A chalked sign announced what I was hearing over the speakers.

"Obama's inauguration. Live! C'mon in."

I glanced in through the window. On the big screen television above the bar was the new president. Beside me, two men in suits and overcoats had stopped to listen. About ten feet away, three men wearing yellow hard hats were leaning against the brick next to one of the speakers, smoking and listening. I listened for a while before continuing down the street to work. People stopping in the street for a presidential inauguration speech? A live presentation in a pub? The last time I'd seen a spontaneously diverse gathering like this was the aftermath of 9/11. Before that, the first Iraq war. Both times, however, the distinct feelings of outrage and fear had been palpable. People united by their anger. Today the scent was entirely different, and it left me feeling strangely buoyed and positive. A president who inspired people, I remember thinking, what a change.

For most of us, the commotion and excitement of Obama's inauguration feels like a long time ago. Less than two months after Obama's visit to the Canadian capital, where people lined up as early as 4am hoping to catch a glimpse of the new president, the news these days are flooded with Doom prophets. From moderates like Peggy Noonan "weightless administration" to extremists like Rush Limbaugh. ("I want him to fail.") Despite Obama's weighted comments about having patience with the economy in his inauguration speech, it seems that the apocalypse sells better than reality.

The Republicans have always done gloom better than the Democrats. Following 9/11, the promise of another imminent attack was used to pass the Patriot Act, which limited individual rights more than any other bill in the last Century, secure "suspected terrorists" in Guantanamo Bay without trial, and start an endless war on a sovereign country that has led to an incalculable loss of life. All this in the name of Doom.

The problem facing the Democrats is that appealing to people's fears is a good strategy. The only silver bullet for them in the past thirty odd-years has been the economy, which Clinton both helped turn and then rode to a popular two term presidency. With the current economic climate however, Obama faces a dual challenge for his time in office. The first is to convince the American public that they are safe, a surprisingly daunting task when you consider the last fifty years, but not terribly surprising when you understand the politics of fear.
From a very young age, we are conditioned to be aware of abnormal -- read negative -- behaviour. We are taught, for example, that people are selfish, when humanity is by far the most cooperative species on the planet.
Every day people open doors for one another, wait patiently in line, smile and say hello, offer a word of kindness, and wait for the traffic light to change. The examples are endless. Yet our tendency is to remember the rare times when those things do not occur. "She cut me off." "He completely ignored me." And so on. The difficulty for Obama will be to convince the American people that they are safe, without saying, "Of course we are. Look at the facts." Accepting that in the past twenty years, the number of deaths due to terrorism is somewhere under 0.0001 per cent of the population, we begin to see how effective the doom prophets can be.

The other problem for Obama is that he cannot use Clinton's strategy, "It's the economy, stupid." And while it was a Republican government that enacted the greatest deficit in U. S. history, the old Conservatives continue to bang the drum of the apocalypse by misstating Obama's proper Keynesian response as "liberal big government." This past month, an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal proclaimed, "Obama's Radicalism is Killing the Dow." Michael J. Boskin, the economics professor who wrote the article, unsurprisingly chaired the Council of Economic advisers under the first Bush. Another old prophet of doom.

Unfortunately, the constant bleating from the back rows is starting to gain traction. Obama's approval rating sits at 61%. Still high, but it is the lowest it has been since his inauguration. The honeymoon is over. For most leaders, especially Democratic presidents, the task ahead would be daunting if not impossible. Obama, however, has one advantage. We saw it through the campaign. We witnessed it during the inauguration. And we're seeing it now. It is Obama's ability to appeal to our "better" self. To, as he said recently, not mute the public's anger, but "channel" it. To help us notice what we should notice. This counter-intuitive ideology, however, is something that only the great leaders can communicate.

What Obama understands better than most is that genuine influence is much more than getting people to do what you want them to do. It means people finish what you started because they believe. This is the essence of faith. And as Annette Simmons writes in her book, The Story Factor, story is the pathway to faith. People must own their changes, must own their story, because they value their own conclusions more highly than yours. Other methods of influence -- persuasion, bribery, or fear -- are push strategies. Story is a pull strategy. If your story is good enough, people -- of their own free will -- come to the conclusion that they can trust you and the message you bring.

In the turbulent times of the early sixties, JFK challenged our view of government with these words: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Martin Luther King, another leader to whom Obama has been compared, inspired a country to revolutionize its social patterns with his vision, "I have a dream." Their stories became our stories. (The power of their influence was great enough to affect a young Wellander, who would later pass those tales on to his son.)

The question for us then, is whose story are we going to choose? Apocalypse Now... or Hope for Tomorrow?

In purely rhetorical terms, as great as Kennedy was, Obama is better. And like Kennedy, his appeal spans a wide demographic. In the coming years, he will need every ounce of those abilities if he is to overcome the prophets that will be barking their message at every opportunity.

The criticisms from Wall Street notwithstanding, until we learn whether the stimulus package worked, Obama's influence remains more felt than political, more art than science. That is not a criticism. While administration and policy are important, the leaders who create new stories for us are the ones who truly affect our lives. I hope that he is re-elected. I hope we choose his story. If only so we can re-discover that feeling we all had the day he was inaugurated. The day we stood outside the pub to hear something we hadn't heard before: a leader bringing people together, without the scent of fear.

That said, if the economy does not recover as quickly as we need it to, he might still not win a second term, the doom prophets will not allow it.