Imagine how thrilled I was when I opened my email and discovered a dinner invitation from President Obama, except, of course, it was actually an invitation to buy a raffle ticket. For a mere $5, the grand prize was an evening with Barack Obama (and those guys worried about Anthony Weiner compromising the dignity of the Democratic party).
No doubt, you’ve also received your “invitation” and are familiar with the smarmy wording of it. Still, despite the sweepstakes entry cheesiness of it, I’ve been mulling it over–imagining what I would say if I had dinner with President Obama.
I would begin by thanking him for his kind offer to bring my story and my ideas with me to the White House. But then I would say, Mr. President, there are two parts to my story. The first part, you want to hear; the second part, you really don’t. But that is the part I’m determined to tell you.
Let’s dispense with the first part quickly. It is the boring and all-too-familiar story, the type politicians collect so they can use it on the campaign trail. In a nutshell, here is the demographic info so you may check off lots of boxes on your forms: moderate income, college educated, married, over 50, lost health insurance, underwater mortgage, husband graduating college this summer (job market and economy super-important right now), daughter of factory worker and public employee, granddaughter of Catholic immigrants, voted Democratic in every election since the age of 18, raised in small town Wisconsin, now living in California.
Please check off the boxes quickly, sir, and don’t bother trying to draw out of me some yarn about the travails of health insurance, mortgages, etc for potential use on the campaign trail. [First, I am not much interested in telling it. Second, there's nothing particularly flashy here. My husband and I have been blessed with good health. And we've managed despite this recession to keep up with our mortgage. You can find a story with more drama--a good stump speech--somewhere else. [ I hope I will not sound impolite as I say this or cause undue friction at the White House dining table, but I am determined to tell the President my real story before we finish dessert. And when I read this email and "Barack" told me how much he was looking forward to this "casual meal among friends," I felt a profound weariness.]
Now, here is my real story. As I said, I’ve voted Democratic in every election since I was 18 years old. I also volunteered in the Clinton/Gore, Kerry/Edwards, and Obama/Biden campaigns. Yes, Mr. President, your campaign. I’ve already told the story in my blog of how your campaign in ’08 inspired people, and how I witnessed this at the campaign headquarters in Walnut Creek, California–particularly of the last Saturday before the election. Volunteers were sitting elbow to elbow phoning voters in swing states. Every seat was taken. More volunteers stood, waiting for someone to give up a seat. They filled the broad center aisle of the office. The line went out the door and down the sidewalk. And, oh yes, it was raining so hard the rain was bouncing off the pavement. But as far as I could see no one left the line; people continued to wait patiently out in the rain.
A heartwarming story, isn’t it, Mr. President? It touches on your great gift, your singular ability to communicate and inspire people. I am sure that at this point in our dinner, you will thank me warmly for my volunteer efforts and try to draw the conversation down one of those folksy paths politicians love so much.
Yes, yes, I fit nicely into a demographic chart–immigrant grandparents, union member father–the type of voter who was the bedrock the Democratic party could count on until Jimmy Carter went up against Ronald Reagan. But we’ll get back to that presently. And oh yes, sitting in your campaign headquarters at those long folding tables and chairs reminded me of the Friday night fish fries of my childhood, held down in the basement cafeteria of St. Leonard’s Catholic School in Muskego, Wisconsin. But we’ve explored this tangent long enough. Let’s leave my childhood memories of fish soaked in beer, dipped in bread batter, and deep fried. Let’s return to ’08 and your campaign.
This next memory is even more telling, because it does not involve your campaign headquarters. Nor does it involve people who had offered to volunteer. It was on the night of one of the debates between you and John McCain. I was driving home from work and stopped at a red light on Main Street. Immediately I began wondering what was going on, because of the small crowd of people gathering on the sidewalk. I peered through the windshield, thinking there must be some huge sports event I hadn’t heard about. The people gathering on the sidewalk were riveted to one of those sports-style oversized TV screens on a restaurant patio. Even in my car, I could sense the electricity building in that knot of people on the sidewalk. It looked like a Superbowl gathering, except it wasn’t. As the light turned green and I started to roll forward, I caught a glimpse of the TV screen–and it was the debate. It was you, Mr. President, that everyone was watching.
That sight galvanized me. I felt a degree of hope about the future of our country, something I have seldom felt. The first presidential election I voted in was Carter vs. Reagan. It was one of my most frustrating political experiences, because I never doubted Carter’s sincerity. But he did not have Reagan’s charisma or gift at communication. If Carter had had it, he would’ve used it to draw this country into a conversation “about what kind of country we want to be.” Instead Reagan had the gift and used it like a snake oil salesman to talk Americans into buying voodoo economics.
In ’08, when I saw that crowd gathering on the sidewalk, I realized that that immense gift–that comes along once in a generation–the Democrats had it. It was ours. We had the great communicator on our side, and we would start up a real conversation, long overdue, “about what kind of country we want to be.” Or so I believed. But at some point after the inauguration, Mr. President, you pushed your chair back from the table, stood up, and walked away.
Some noticed you had left the table as soon as you said you would not investigate the Bush/Cheney administration for torture or war crimes. Others noticed when the stimulus was half the size recommended by progressive economists.
And me? I noticed your place at the table was empty during health care reform when Joe Lieberman and Blanche Lincoln were allowed to kill the public option with no response from you. As I said, my husband and I lost our health insurance. The system did exactly what it is designed to do: accept your premiums on time every month beginning in your twenties. And then after 25 to 30 years of supporting the private health insurance system, after you cross the Big Five Zero, they jack the premiums up so sky high you cannot afford them on anything less than a six-figure income. Oh yes, it is wonderful that come 2014, no insurer will be allowed to turn away anyone for a pre-existing condition. But I anticipate the premiums will remain sky high and health care will remain out of our reach. There is no public option to provide affordable insurance for people like us.
Since then, I have noticed repeatedly that your place at the table is empty. In December, you caved in to the Republicans on not taxing the rich. You decided to cut “waste” by halving home heating subsidies for the elderly poor. And, of course, why bother honoring your promise to stand with workers who are being denied their collective bargaining rights? Your place on the picket line in Madison and on the podium remained empty too.
Even folks who are not progressives, or politically active at all, must have felt some unease during the PR blitz announcing that the Great Recession is over, while unemployment remains stuck stubbornly above 9 percent. And then you went along with Republicans declaring the deficit is the number one problem, we must cut expenses, and everything is on the table.
I suppose, Mr. President, you would call at least some of the above bipartisanship. What I would call it might get me sent away from the dinner table.
As a Midwesterner, I am about as practical as they come. I thought folks who voted for Ralph Nader instead of Al Gore were fools. I’ve alway believed politics is the art of the possible. But even I have a limit. I’m beginning to wonder what kind of country we could become if progressives just walked away from the Democrats in 2012, and began work in earnest on building a third party.
Now this is where you become really animated, Mr. President. You lean over your gilt-edged dinner plate and launch into an argument, probably a brilliant one, of why it would be foolish to relinquish the White House to the Republicans. I am sure you can draw an unnerving picture of what a Republican victory would look like. Allow me to supply you with several details to add to your list:
-war being waged simultaneously on three fronts
-a president who tells Congress he has war powers and does not need to seek their approval
-a failure to investigate or prosecute Bush/Cheney administration officials for torture or war crimes
-a gutted health care reform bill with no public option
-a failure to provide relief for homeowners facing foreclosure
-a president who drags his feet about leaving Afghanistan even after we got Bin Laden (Kudos on that, sir, well done. But it will be ancient history by November 2012. People will vote on the economy.)
-a president who fails to tax the rich, and whom people no longer trust to defend Social Security and Medicare.
Is there anything I missed?
And, Mr. President, before we finish dessert, I have one more question. Why would someone with your unparalleled gift to inspire and communicate just stop using it one day? Does it have anything to do with the one billion, including corporate donations, that you need to amass in your re-election war chest?
Let me leave you with one final thought. Not too long ago, our country was hungry for change on jobs, health care, and the economy. A young upstart challenged the incumbent: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”