I work out at the local YMCA. I tend to keep to myself, rarely talking too much in the locker room. I do listen though. Last week as I got changed, I listened while a group of seven or so men between the ages of 50 and 75 talked politics. I could not help but listen, because they were nearly yelling. Their voices were angry.
I knew what was likely prompting their animated discussion. Over the last few years I had heard similar conversations in bars, at parties, or at family gatherings. I had received those e-mail messages easily identified by their capitalized sentences and exclamation points. They were talking about President Barack Obama. I had listened before, as members of this “greatest generation”, mostly men, talked about the President. I had watched media coverage of Tea Party rallies, statements to the media challenging the President’s birthplace. I had read the online blogs and comments questioning the President’s commitment to democracy.
The loud locker room banter was more of the same. These men swapped snippets of facts critical of Obama. I heard references to Wisconsin and how all the TARP money in Wisconsin went to unions, who then funneled it back to the Democratic Party. One gentleman insisted that the President was a Marxist. As they spoke, their voices rose together. I had been going to the YMCA for approximately 15 years, and I had never seen such a large group discussing a single topic with such excitement.
This visceral reaction to this President in not unique, and it has occupied my thoughts for some time. People will always differ in their opinions. George Bush certainly had his detractors and suffered at the hands of many a hardened Democrat. Movies lampooned him, and people questioned his intelligence. The door certainly swings both ways, and liberals and conservatives have the ability to inflict serious wounds upon their targets.
But the sentiment toward President Obama tends to rise to a fevered pitch. As I watched the men yelling in the locker room, I could see the strong emotions animating their faces. This was no debate. Everyone was on the same page. They were reinforcing one another’s opinions. The message was simple; the President was not one of us, he could not be trusted, he was ruining our country. As I listened, I initially heard voices of anger, but upon further reflection, I think what I heard was fear.
These men were afraid. Our country had followed a fairly reliable course over many decades. The Cold War enshrouded our collective psyche with clear lines demarcating our enemies and our allies. Our nation’s policies fit neatly within a set of principles that put democracy first as the bulwark against communism and its totalitarian regimes. Conflicts throughout the world were assessed based on how the outcome impacted the balance of power between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, or perhaps more accurately, between democratic capitalism and communism. Wars, covert and otherwise, were fought to protect the principles of democracy and freedom.
The Vietnam War marked a point of departure as the first thread was pulled from this neat fabric of expectations informed by ideas of American exceptionalism. The string of victories in support of causes whose rightness could not be question had ended. No doubt sensing this slippage in our national self-esteem, President Reagan convinced a generation that all was well and we remained the “shining city on a hill”. Rallying the nation against the “Evil Empire”, Ronald Reagan restored confidence in the principles we stood for.
But as our country clung to a role that made sense in a world where our economy controlled the tempo of international commerce, the flattening of our world undermined this fundamental assumption. As technology advanced and third world countries pursued the fruits of a free market, our ability to influence and retain our economic strength came under attack. The rest of the world now gravitated toward the model of economic competition that had fueled our remarkable success. Hungry to improve their own circumstances, these new competitors soon had the capacity to challenge our supremacy in markets that we had long dominated.
While these changes unfolded, we held firm to the idea that each successive American generation could continue the unbroken trend of economic betterment. Remarkably ignorant to asset valuations that defied the simplest economic principles, we mortgaged our houses, increased out debt and became consummate consumers. At the end of the last decade, in a final frenzy of profiteering, investment bankers pedaled questionable mortgage securities, protected themselves with unconscionable credit default swaps and set in motion a financial collapse that devastated millions of unsuspecting citizens of the world.
The events of the fall of 2008 were an exclamation point on a slide that started many years earlier. Unbeknownst to the scores of borrowers signing up for 30-year commitments to finance their homes, the regulations that protected us against profit-obsessed banks growing too big to fail had been gutted. Lobbyists for these banks and other firms that profit from mortgages had spread their money throughout Washington and orchestrated the dismantling of these regulations.
With streamlined securitization of mortgages having taken the risk out of lending, the unraveling of our collective asset bubble came swiftly and often unexpectedly. Homes dropped in value. Stocks lost one-third of their value. Companies responded by trimming jobs and benefits. Retirement savings became inadequate overnight and the middle class felt the pinch on all fronts. Middle-income wage earners had no home equity to offset a decrease in pay, an increase in credit card balances or any other unsuspected expense. Coming on the heels of a spending binge, the impact cut deeply.
In the midst of this suffering, a bewildered society looked to blame someone for these ills. Seeing an opportunity, those on the political extremes – including elected officials who had voted to weaken bank regulation — offered simple, seductive explanations. The talk radio hosts led the charge laying out a vision of blame. Disregarding the economic circumstances that produced the financial catastrophe of 2008 — including two foreign wars, deregulation of the banking sector and massive tax cuts that lived up to the “trickle” in trickle down — the blame game adroitly moved to deficits and debt. Overlooking the dire circumstances inherited by this President, the talk show hosts and the right-leaning movement that circulates their never-ending stream of criticism, invented clever arguments for blaming the President. The attacks coupled critiques of spending with more personal, sinister condemnations. The President was a socialist. The President wanted to make the United States like Europe. He wasn’t really born here. He’s a Muslim (that this is a criticism says something on its own). He never worked for a living. He’s not qualified for the job. If you listen to talk radio in the New York City market, you heard these critiques all day and night.
The message has been delivered now for over three years, and its impact is real. There is a large minority of our population who blame nearly every problem facing this country on this President. I can certainly debate the merits of actions taken by the President. I would have spent some of the TARP money differently. I don’t agree with the health care plan as structured, but I take issue with the insinuation that the President is somehow un-American. I am tired of the not so subtle references to the fact that he’s probably a Muslim, a Socialist, not native-born, or as my locker room friend suggests, a Marxist. These comments do our country a disservice.
Am I missing something? I see a man who has stayed cool in the face of a once in a lifetime financial crisis. His approach to the economic crisis has been Keynesian, and we certainly have a far larger debt than when we started. But what really was the alternative? More austerity? I understand all too well that our national cash flow needs a major adjustment and soon, but not while spinning off the financial cliff remains a real possibility for our economy. His support for automakers saved that industry, and his commitment to sustainable energy solutions will make us a leader in this growing industry. We have disentangled from Iraq, are winding down our engagement in Afghanistan, avoided disaster in Libya, took out Osama bin Laden and scores of his henchmen, and managed to somehow retain a relationship with Pakistan and Egypt as near revolutions engulfed these countries.
I also see a President who cares about every day people and is a model father and husband. His health care initiative, however much one might debate it, has as its goal access to affordable health care for all our citizens. Not long after coming into office, the President spearheaded an effort to limit credit card abuse. How many people have paid a credit card bill a few days late, only to have the interest rate jump to 27 percent or more? How many people have searched their credit card statement looking for a lucid explanation of the interest rate or how fees are charged? The creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau established an agency whose mission was to take the complexity out of financial transactions involving mortgages, credit cards, student loans and other financial products. The Wall Street banks fought against the creation of this agency and continue to do so. These institutions fight these measures, because they make it harder to turn a profit off unsuspecting consumers by charging ridiculous interest rates and clandestine fees. These large, profit-driven banks will not willingly provide transparent, fair financial products to consumers, out of some sense of fairness or equity. We need government to guard against their over-reaching.
So, at the risk of being labeled a socialist, I support this President, and I believe we need his judgment and perspective more than ever. Congress has failed to fix the ills that allowed Wall Street to nearly bankrupt this country. Moving forward, there are certain truths that should guide us. A for profit entity exists to make money. The bigger the entity, the greater the drive for profit. Those employed at the highest levels of these companies operate for the express purpose of maximizing profit. Their performance is measured on their contribution to the bottom line. The idea that leaving these companies to operate in a marketplace with as little oversight as possible will somehow inevitably produce maximum economic benefit for everyday people is propaganda fed to fearful people looking for simple solutions.
Our society certainly relies upon and revolves around the capitalist model, and I believe in it. But I do not accept the idea that large, for profit entities should be left alone to work their magic for the good of us all. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that such institutions left to their own devices will pollute our world, exploit our workers and push their profit-making endeavors to their limits regardless of the long-term consequences. Our current financial crisis is only the most recent example of this reality.
The President is not perfect, but I think he shares that belief. Like Bill Clinton before him, he understands what faces those living at the margins of our society. He understands that leaving the future of our society in the hands of someone like Mitt Romney means entrusting the welfare of all, including those Americans in the most desperate circumstances, to someone who honestly believes that his experience is not that unique and his vast fortune is the inevitable product of hard work and smart decisions. This is not to say that Mitt Romney is a bad man, but I have trouble believing that he has the perspective necessary to offset a political momentum that has shifted the balance of power in this country decidedly in the favor of big corporations and the wealthiest Americans that run them. We have not learned our lessons from 2008, and I don’t think Mitt Romney will be espousing reform.
As you wind your way through the next few months, inevitably encountering the conversations, talk shows and the emails that feed the anti-Obama rhetoric, I would encourage you to ask yourself is he really the demon that you hear about on radio and TV? I don’t think so. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but we should all be vigilant in how we form our own. Before accepting the characterizations of the President that infiltrate so many of these locker room conversations, dig a little deeper. What are the specific facts underlying these opinions? Why do people say he is a socialist? What does that term mean? What would happen if we dramatically cut spending to balance the budget? What programs would be eliminated? How would the reduced spending works its way through our weakened economy? Most important, who will benefit from a society where big business is less regulated, unions have less power, and the taxes on the rich are reduced in anticipation of some ill-defined trickling of these scraps of tax savings to the 99%. Mitt Romney’s $100 million dollar IRA and 13.7% tax rate give you a glimpse of where most of the money will go.