Thursday, September 3, 2009

Waiting for Obama -- Sept. 3, 2009 column


As Paulette gave my hair a late-summer trim, I asked what she thinks now of the president who won her vote.

“I haven’t seen much change yet,” said Paulette, an independent voter, frowning. “Lots of money spent and lots of yelling. I keep waiting for him to, well, arrive.”

That’s about as good as it gets for Barack Obama these days. His critics are gleeful that the president has had a rough summer and are eager to write him off. But if voters are still waiting, he can regain momentum.

The president’s job-approval numbers are down, but Congress’ numbers are worse. Obama faces an uphill fight with health-care reform, but he has the bully pulpit to remind voters why they liked him and his plans.

This week will be critical. On Tuesday, Obama plans to give a pep talk to the nation’s students. Wednesday night, he will address a joint session of Congress, trying to revive his overhaul of the health-care system. Friday, he’ll lead a National Day of Service and Remembrance, honoring those killed in the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s a sign of the times that these seemingly uncontroversial events unleashed waves of conservative criticism.

Critics flew into a tizzy over the speech to students, charging it’s an attempt to brainwash children. Republicans announced that nothing the president says to Congress will make much difference. Some talk show hosts knocked service because it shifts attention from the 9/11 attacks and the perpetrators. Plus, the groups participating in the day of service represent all parts of the political spectrum, including the left.

In his speech to students, Obama will urge kids to work hard, set educational goals and take responsibility for their learning. The speech will be broadcast on C-SPAN and the White House Web site. Education Secretary Arne Duncan encouraged school principals to have their classes tune in.

A president exhorting children to study should be inoffensive and unexceptional – but in 2009, it’s neither.

The chairman of the Republican party of Florida, Jim Greer, fired off a press release to declaring that he was appalled at Obama’s use of taxpayer funds to spread his “socialist ideology.” Greer later said the real problem was the teaching tools provided by the administration. No matter that these were optional.

Critics jumped on a suggestion that pupils write themselves letters about how they could help the president as an Orwellian attempt to indoctrinate children. The Education Department quickly rewrote the offending sentence to say that students should write themselves letters setting short-term and long-term educational goals.

Some school districts have decided not to carry the president’s speech. Others may show it but allow parents to opt out. Some talk radio hosts even called for parents to keep their children home.

This kerfuffle is embarrassing. Imagine the chatter if a foreign president sparked an uproar in his country by calling for children to study.

At least we can expect open minds on Capitol Hill, right? Not exactly. Before Obama could lay out specifics of his plan, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, “The problem is what he’s trying to sell.”

Democrats are waiting for Obama to show leadership on health care. If he drops or soft-pedals the public option, a government alternative to private insurance, he could please Blue Dog Democrats, the moderates and conservatives crucial to reform’s passage, while alienating organized labor and liberals.

AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Rich Trumka, who is expected to become the union’s president this month, called the public option “an absolute must” and said it’s time for organized labor to remember its friends and punish its enemies.

Obama’s attempt to unite the country on Sept. 11 also met with resistance. The president and first lady innocuously called on all Americans to make a difference in their communities, not just on 9/11 but in the days, weeks and months to follow.

Some commentators complained that collecting food for the hungry and other such projects distract from remembering the attacks and this somehow demeans the memory of the more than 3,000 who were killed.

A year ago, though, President George W. Bush also tried to rekindle the neighbor-helping-neighbor spirit that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Volunteerism is strong in the country. But the truth of the matter is, the farther we've gotten away from 9/11, that memory has begun to fade,” Bush said.

September is a time for fresh starts and cooler temperatures. Voters like Paulette are waiting for Obama to arrive.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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