Remember when the McCain campaign accused Barack Obama of "already measuring the White House drapes." It was more false populism, suggesting that it was the bi-racial son of a single mother who embodied a sense of entitlement, instead of the admiral's son who couldn't remember how many houses he had. But let's take McCain's challenge literally, and ask whether Obama needs to change the White House drapes at all. Or the White House rug or furniture or décor, all of which new presidents traditionally replace when they move in. Obama could replace all this as expected, and no one would deem it exceptional. But suppose instead that he took the opportunity to break with tradition, and make a powerful symbolic stand by instead using the already allocated money to bring back additional solar panels (Bush actually brought back some in 2002 but more could be added), and make the White House more energy efficient.
Given tough economic times, we're all going to have to make hard choices, so why not begin with these symbols. Suppose Obama seized the moment by publicly saying something like "I know the President or their spouse traditionally selects a new rug and new décor. We're supposed to measure the White House drapes and change them. But these are hard times, and we're going to be careful how we spend the public's resources. So we're not going to redecorate the While House. We're certainly going to do our best to reverse the past administration's failed policies. But furniture is just furniture, and we aren't going to replace what doesn't need to be replaced."
"What we are going to do," Obama could continue, "is to use some of the money we saved to put more of the solar collectors back on the White House roof, the successors of those Jimmy Carter installed when he initiated his renewable energy programs. And we're going to build on efforts that go back to the Clinton years and do everything we can to make the White House and all our Federal buildings models of energy efficiency, because if they aren't, that's something we can fix in a way that will not only help fight climate change, but will also pay back our investment. Much as we'd love to redecorate, there are more important priorities."
This would mark a new direction from trying to consume our way out of our every predicament. After 9/11 my local Seattle paper ran a letter which proclaimed. "Be a patriot. Go out to the mall and buy a sofa." I have nothing against sofas, but all the sofas in the world can't solve the problems that fed Bin Laden's murderous attack, and no matter how lovely the new rug, drapes or sofa Barack and Michelle Obama might bring to the White House, they won't shift us an inch from our economic freefall and our despoliation of our planet But solar collectors and insulation can. They're a core part of the solution. So why not start than at the top, with every possible symbol, including those which promote the profoundly conservative virtues of frugality. If Obama wants to really mark a presidential turning point, I can't think of a better place to start.