Can the president get us out of this mess?

Obama needs to find the guy who wrote stirring speeches and made all things seem possible in 2008 -- within himself

Published August 23, 2010 3:23AM (EDT)

As a professional speechwriter, I have a deep affection for the mad Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, a man whose unorthodoxy is so deeply ingrained that he has ghost-written negative reviews of his own books. He’s also a speechwriter – a profession that saved him from hopeless unemployment.

As a young man, Zizek couldn’t attain a teaching job in his native Slovenia because his college papers diverged too broadly from approved Marxist dogma. But shortly thereafter, he joined the Communist party to land a government speechwriting job.

As Zizek might say, isn’t that's the essence of the profession? Doesn’t one truly become a speechwriter the day he or she sacrifices every principle to ventriloquize for the powerful, to create facile rhetoric for those most hostile to your own thoughts?

President Obama, famously, writes his own speeches. Or he talks through ideas with his “special assistant” Jon Favreau long enough so that Favreau can read Obama’s mind on the subject at hand. This is the official White House line on the words that appear on the President’s teleprompter, and who are we to doubt it? “Dreams of My Father” remains the single greatest contribution Barack Obama has made to American culture. A close second place is his speech in Philadelphia on the heels of the Rev. Wright controversy, followed by his speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention. Every word of those works of art is his, so we are told. So let’s assume that Obama, like Zizek, is a member of the fraternity, and that Mr. Favreau is merely a stenographer.

Channeling Zizek again, is it not possible – or even likely – that speechwriter Barack Obama feels a certain emotional and intellectual distance from, maybe even disdain for, President Barack Obama? At his core, the speechwriter Barack Obama is still the cunning idealist of “Dreams of My Father,” still the gifted intellectual focused doggedly on social change. It was speechwriter Obama who introduced issues like talking to foreign despots and the continued importance of race in our culture into the American public square, daring to upset orthodoxy.

Speechwriter Obama understands the zeitgeist while President Obama seems a prisoner to it. Speechwriter Obama slyly dropped praise of American atheists into a speech about race and religion. President Obama was forced to react to the “ground zero mosque” controversy, and stumbled. Speechwriter Obama promised that his presidency would be the time when the planet would be healed. President Obama signed on to more offshore drilling shortly before the Gulf oil spill and has stood mute while Russia burns and Pakistan drowns.

Speechwriter Obama was a deep reader of Nietzsche, Freud and Sartre as a student. President Obama barely has time to floss and watch Sportscenter. And it shows. In the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner that galvanized his campaign in October 2007, Speechwriter Obama correctly sensed that we were at a defining moment in our history. “Our nation is at war. The planet is in peril. The dream that so many generations fought for … feels like it’s slowly slipping away. That is why telling the American people what we think they want to hear … instead of telling the American people what they need to hear, just won’t do.”

The nation three years later? Deeper in war. The planet? In greater peril. That dream generations fought for? No longer slowly slipping away, now it’s racing away. And as for what the American people need to hear – do they need to hear that, with unemployment at 9.5%, now it’s time to be conservative and cut spending? Do they need to hear from his Treasury Secretary that their work is done, that recovery is at hand? Do they need to hear that – even though the banks are more consolidated than ever -- the 2008 Wall Street meltdown will never happen again?

I give the president enormous credit for what he has accomplished – a big (if not big enough) stimulus bill, healthcare reform, financial reform, the confirmation of two outstanding Supreme Court Justices. In normal times, this would be a powerful record of accomplishment to run on. But these are not normal times – unemployment is at crisis levels throughout the country -- and President Obama did not come into office with normal expectations. Being a calm, competent manager was never going to be good enough. President Obama swept in – thanks in good part to Speechwriter Obama – on a messianic wing. Conservatives loved to mock the sweeping rhetoric and vague dreams of the Obama campaign, but these were the ideals that captured the public imagination.

How different it feels today to have a President Obama who takes weeks to get angry – a very feigned anger at that – at BP over its destruction of the Gulf. Where is that young community organizer who was outraged by plant closings in South Chicago? Imagine a college student in 2008 who volunteered her nights and weekends for this campaign of hope, only to graduate into a wasteland of a job market and discover that President Obama has no new plans to create job growth?

Speechwriter Obama has a duty to force President Obama to listen to the discontent and not hear Tea Party anger, but rather the continuing demand for change. President Obama cannot hide behind excuses, we the people gave him enormous power, de jure and de facto, and we expect him to act and to strive. President Obama knows that the shock of the 2008 economic crisis has not faded and that there’s a serious risk of an aftershock if Americans cannot be assured that the trauma has passed and the recovery is real. And President Obama – who bragged recently that he “politicks pretty good” – also understands that he has a great, largely untapped, ability to sell ideas that may at first strike the American people the wrong way.

As Zizek has written, the dream of the messianic is deeply human – or as Nietzsche would say, all too human. We are unashamedly committed to universals – freedom, prosperity, peace and, yes, hope. To embrace the messianic, a leader must take a leap of faith and be willing to embrace what appear to be lost causes.

And what is the greatest of all supposed Democratic lost causes? It’s the cause of full employment. It’s what drove FDR to create the Works Progress Administration – to advance the radical thought that Americans out of work are Americans out of dreams and that government must harness these creative drives for public good. This cause drove the Congress of another era to pass the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, making full employment a national priority and making full employment a mandate of Federal Reserve monetary policies.

Just enforcing this act with the Fed might be a nice start for President Obama. But why stop there? Why not push for a genuine Full Employment Act? Why have Democrats abandoned what was once a pillar of their political platform? Why not pick up the first year’s salary for companies that re-hire workers laid off since the start of the recession? Why not cut the payroll tax in half for employers and employees for the next two years? Why not provide free community college tuition for the unemployed, so they can gain new skills and be ready for economic change? Why not invest in America’s human infrastructure with more day care centers and community health centers? And, yes, why not bring back the WPA to fix sewer and water systems and repair bridges, tunnels and rail lines – the crumbling infrastructure that’s already led to bridge collapses and levy failures and other catastrophes of the long-ago built world.

Could it pass? Worry about that later. Will the Conservatives scream socialism? You bet. But they already do! A party that moralistically attacks and ridicules the unemployed probably would oppose these actions even if they cost nothing. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin will scream just as loudly about our mortgaged future if you propose a $1 million jobs bill or a $1 trillion job bill. So why not propose the latter?

The American people know partisan rhetoric when they hear it – and they expect Democrats to be Democrats. They also understand the limitations of the Presidency. What they don’t understand is how a President who repeatedly says that we “can’t wait” to fix problems, thinks it’s perfectly okay to tell people without jobs and without hope that we’ve done all we can, that you’ll just have to wait.

Failing to pass a big jobs bill, the public can understand that. Failing to care while millions of Americans become chronically unemployed? That’s a road that will surely lead to Barack Obama’s unemployment.


By Dan Conley

Dan Conley is a freelance writer and former speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder.

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