Obama's Missing Moral Narrative

Barack Obama may be one of the best
communicators of this generation, but he is not living up to his own
talents. In a year of disasters, communication failure doubles the

If, as he says, the monster spill was
his highest priority from Day 1, he needed to communicate that from
Day 1 - or at least Day 3 or 4. It took five weeks for him to tell
the nation what he and his administration were doing. The result was
visible in the press conference today. He was on the defensive. He
to be on the offensive - from early on. The choice is not doing
communicating. It is doing and communicating.

His narrative: This is a tough,
situation, but I'm in charge, and I've been very busy, in the Situation
Room where I belong, not on tv. I'm fully competent. I'm a good
policy wonk - ask me any question about details. I'm honest. I admit
my few policy mistakes. I think about the details day and night. Don't
think I'm oblivious.

It's defensive, trying to overcome
criticism that should never have been allowed to accumulate. But worse,
it's weak when it needs to be strong.

The president did do the required
He placed a moratorium on offshore drilling and cancelled oil leases
in the Gulf and off Virginia. He appointed a commission to make safety
recommendations. And he is reorganizing the Mining Management Service.
All to the good, but ...

Crises are opportunities. He has
missed them. Today was a grand opportunity to pull together the threads
- BP and the spill, Massey and the mine disaster, Wall Street and
the economic disaster, Anthem BlueCross and health care, the Arizona
Immigration Law, Don't Ask, Don't Tell - even Afghanistan. The
press threw him fastballs straight down the middle, and he hit dribblers

every time.

It's not that he said nothing to
tie them together. But there was no home run, no unifying narrative,
no patriotic call to the nation on the full gamut of issues. Instead,
there were only hints, suggestions, possible implications, notes of
concern - as if he had been intimidated by the right-wing message

And yet, Obama of all political
could have done it, because he did before in his campaign.

The central idea is Empathy. Democracy
is based on empathy, on people caring about one another and acting to
the very best of their ability on that care, for their families, their
communities, their nation, and the world. Government must also care
and act on that care. Government's job is to protect and empower its

That idea is what draws together all
the threads. The bottom line for corporations (whether BP, Massey,
or Goldman Sachs) is money, not empathy. The bottom line for those who
hate (whether homophobes, the Arizona Legislature, or al Qaeda) is
and oppression, not empathy.

Empathy, and acting on it effectively,
is the main business of government. And Obama knows it in his heart.

Yet the right-wing has intimidated
Obama into dropping not just the word "empathy," but the idea. Empathy
is a positive deep connection with other people in general and with
all living things, the ability to see and feel as they do. The
right-wing, which shows little empathy, has confused empathy with a
bleeding-heart sympathy for individuals, which they see as a weakness.
And though Obama has repeatedly made the distinction clear, he has
the right wing to intimidate him into abandoning "the most important
thing my mother taught me."

At the very end of the press'
there was a hint of the campaign Obama.

    ...I think everybody understands
    that when we are fouling the Earth like this, it has concrete
    not just for this generation, but for future generations.

    I grew up in Hawaii where the ocean
    is sacred. And when you see birds flying around with oil all over their
    feathers and turtles dying, that doesn't just speak to the immediate
    economic consequences of this; this speaks to how are we caring for
    this incredible bounty that we have.

    And so sometimes when I hear folks
    down in Louisiana expressing frustrations, I may not always think that
    they're comments are fair; on the other hand, I probably think to
    these are folks who grew up fishing in these wetlands and seeing this
    as an integral part of who they are -- and to see that messed up in
    this fashion would be infuriating.

    So the thing that the American people

    need to understand is that not a day goes by where the federal
    is not constantly thinking about how do we make sure that we minimize
    the damage on this, we close this thing down, we review what happened
    to make sure that it does not happen again. And in that sense, there
    are analogies to what's been happening in terms of in the financial
    markets and some of these other areas where big crises happen -- it
    forces us to do some soul searching. And I think that's important for
    all of us to do.

Here, at the very end, he allows the
empathy and the moral vision to come out. Future generations, the
of nature over the immediate economic consequences, caring for this
incredible bounty that we have, identifying with folks who see fishing
as part of who they are, analogies to what's been happening in the
financial markets, soul searching.

That should have - and could have
- been the central narrative drawing all the threads together. The
narrative about the daily competence and effort should have been in
service of the central narrative of his administration. It should be,
and can be, the central narrative of American democracy.

But to make it central and powerful
would be confrontational. It would bring him head-to-head with
ideology - empathy-free, self-interest maximizing, with disdain or
even hatred for those seen as lesser beings. It is self-reinforcing:
a value-system that above all promotes that value-system itself. That
is why right-wing Republicans always vote no to his proposals. Because
to vote yes would strengthen an empathy-based moral system and weaken
their own.

Because right-wing ideology takes
over empathy, there will be little or any real bipartisanship with those

on the hard-core right. The right is provoking confrontation.
It cannot be avoided. The president should be confronting the right-wing

on all issues - not issue-by-issue as a policy wonk, but with the
master moral narrative that makes sense of our country's values.

Here's what that would mean. The
following "shoulds" are not mine. They follow naturally from President
Obama's own values as he articulated them is his 2008 campaign, and
as they leaked out, largely unnoticed, during his press conference.

The president recognizes that financial

reform requires dealing with systemic risk, which means not mere
but restructuring the financial system to minimize, and if possible
eliminate, systemic risk. Applying the analogy to oil spills, it would
mean no more deep-water drilling because major systemic risks ("worst
case scenarios") cannot be eliminated when you drill starting a mile
down where no human being can go and drilling three miles deeper.

Like other large corporations, BP uses
cost-benefit analysis to maximize profits. It is no surprise that, to
save money, BP chose inferior materials in Deepwater Horizon, materials
whose defects may well have caused the explosion. The use of
analysis for a corporation's benefit (and not the public's) is a
dangerous practice in many industries. Cost-benefit analysis itself,
used this way, should be considered as an important component of
risk by the President's commission on safety.

The president should support the
CLEAR ACT, which will actually cut gasoline consumption radically by
2050 and carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, while stimulating the economy
by providing significant financial dividends to all adult citizens,
eliminating government imposition on business, and making those who
profit from selling polluting fuel pay to clean it up and develop
energy. CLEAR is far superior to cap-and-trade alternatives.

The president should generalize from
oil spills to coal mining, banning the blowing up of mountain tops and
the fouling of streams, and imposing serious safety restrictions on
all mining.

The president should review the covert
operations imposed by the military and cancel those that are
with American values.

The president should order military
leaders under his command to support the elimination of Don't Ask,
Don't Tell.

The president should ask the First
Lady to sponsor a major government program to do research on and support empathetic parenting, along the lines of his 2008 Father's Day speech.

And much more. A great deal follows
from a unified moral stance.

Empathy and the discipline to act
on it, when seen as the basis of democracy and American values, can
be powerful. It can unify the major policies of the administration,
and unify people of good will - and that is a majority of our citizens.

But only if the president communicates empathy effectively, and acts
on it consistently.

Empathy Now!

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