Fixing the rundown, money-losing hospital is critical but not as an immediate priority.
In his 60 Minutes interview, President Obama acknowledged that a poor economy was the main reason for the shellacking his party took, and in a reflective moment, he remarked with a note of regret that leadership is more than programs and policy.
As the late presidential scholar James David Barber put it, “The presidency is the focus for the most intense and persistent emotions in the American polity. The president is a symbolic leader, the one figure who draws together the people’s hopes and fears for the political future. On top of all his routines duties, he has to carry that off — or fail.”
Obama lost an opportunity to build a bond of trust with the American people in the summer of 2009 when the Great Recession was shedding jobs, when people were angry and afraid and the president was nowhere to be seen.
That vacuum was filled by the opposition party, which defined the vague proposal for health reform as a demonic act that would euthanize grandma and described his emergency economic measures as un-American … socialism.
It can be persuasively argued that Obama lost the midterm election last summer. A right-wing guru, Grover Norquist, agrees that Republicans “couldn’t have done it without August, when people went out in the streets.”
Had the president intervened instead, with the unique ability of the office to gather, mine and focus both the moral impulses and common sense of the American people, he could have unleashed native sympathy for the 30 million without insurance and calmed fears of people that they, too, could be laid off and lose their own health insurance.
His intervention would have had a redoubled effect if his advisers had put together a “fire department,” a task force whose ideas for jump-starting the economy would elevate the national dialogue from partisan combat to serious proposals for reigniting the engines of commerce and trade.
Most Americans, fed up with excessive partisanship, would listen to the views of a fire department of CEOs, governors, university presidents, labor leaders and other distinguished Americans — a relief from mere partisan warfare.
Seeing such a task force generate ideas on what the administration and Congress can do, together, to get free enterprise on the march, would give the country a sense of forward momentum.
Either party that ignored their advice would pay a political penalty.
If inserting such a body to channel partisanship in more productive directions were a good idea last summer, it would be a good idea now, during a pause in partisanship; at least one former White House chief of staff thinks so.
Some version of a fire department will be needed to prevent an adolescent game of push and shove among congressional Republicans, tea partiers and the White House.
Republican leaders have already promised trench warfare, perpetual combat to dismantle, reverse or starve by withholding funds from both health-care legislation and Wall Street reforms.
Further, they hope to keep Obama on the defensive by proposing tax cuts and budget reductions they know he can’t support. Tea party members will gleefully join in efforts to cut budgets and even eliminate whole departments.
Tea partiers live in a dream world conjured up by medicine men such as Glenn Beck, a kind of Pied Piper of the movement. They more than half-believe that actual socialists have perverted the Constitution and that the country will be saved if they can get rid of Socialist in Chief Obama and cut, cut, cut.
The imaginary world of wild-spending Democrats will soon clash with the real world where the heaviest contributors to the national debt by 2018 will be the Bush tax cuts, the two wars and the Great Recession — a distant fourth is the Obama economic stimulus package.
If the next two years are nothing but the political equivalent of two scorpions in a bottle, the Republic is in for some frustrating, uninspiring times.
However, should long red fire trucks come screaming out of the White House, packed with statesmen of the academy, business and state government, the country could feel the lift of realistically hopeful days ahead.
Should such a diversion from meaningless partisanship be created, why not go further and deploy regional conventions of the same distinguished quality to report their ideas on securing American moral, economic and military power for decades to come?
It is true that this remarkable country has a surplus of large-minded, creative, entrepreneurial men and women; it’s a pity more of them aren’t in Congress.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.