Pretty Speeches Only Take Us So Far

By Jim Van Der Pol

My hopeful letter to the President:

“Mr. Obama, you don’t understand the working class, which means that you don’t understand the majority of the American people, white, black and brown. You get it about Professor Gates and about Sonia Sotomayor, or Clarence Thomas, Kanye West and Serena Williams. Those are all issues of race, with which you are comfortable and not class, with which you are not.

Your lack of this familiarity with working people shows up in your handling of the health care issue. You start giving away the store by announcing yourself not interested in single-payer health care. Sir, no one gives up the bargain at the outset. Anyone who has ever bargained for a better price on a used car knows that you start the dickering with a low number, even one unrealistically low. Then you make every adjustment up cost the opposition (seller in this case) something. Your goal is to weary him into selling the machine to you for a bit less than he would like to have. This does not cheat anyone; it is simply the way things are done. Working people know this.

And you talk of bipartisanship. This puzzles working class supporters. We elected you with a nice margin, gave the House and the Senate pretty much completely over to the Democrats and what happens? The Republicans, who have destroyed their own party in taking the country down the wrong path, are not people to provide guidance at this point. They are, at best, confused. Don’t assume that the other person in the argument is as ethical and high minded as you are, for they often are not. This is a mistake, and often a costly one. Everyone knows this. How did you avoid learning it?

And there is your tendency to make pretty speeches, and I will freely admit, sir, that you are good at it, often breathtakingly so. But you appear to believe that speeches will win the day. This is not so. The day is won by the exercise of power. This power we handed you at election time. It has to do not so much with what you say in a speech as it does with what you say and do in private meetings with majority leader Reid and Speaker Pelosi and other leaders in the Congress. Working people know about power, because we don’t have any. The boss has it all. We find it hard to understand why Reid and Pelosi have not been tasked with getting the party in order, disciplining the blue dogs and other reluctant types and getting a health care bill passed. The filibuster is no excuse. That should have died several years ago when the Republicans threatened to kill it. The Democrats could kill it now. It would be a service to the Constitution and the country.

Then there is the giveaway to Wall Street. If the working class were unanimous about anything, it might very well be in despising this. Economists, especially including Summers and Geithner at your house, seem to be the only Americans in favor of it. We the people on the other hand, see criminals getting away with tax money handouts after decades of accumulating wealth (our wealth) by selling our country down the river with free trade. Wall Street got the money, not folks behind on their mortgages. GM and Chrysler got rescued while their workers and other workers in the auto component industry got left on their own. And why do you not use the real measure of unemployment instead of the Clinton era construct? The real one stands at more than 15%. Hearing this number quoted and watched and then improved like the miserable Dow Jones average is would be a breath of fresh air indeed!

You appear to be tone deaf in these matters. Why does it seem to be easier to publicly take health care advice from Ron Williams, whose claim to fame is his bringing his health insurance company back to financial health partly by jettisoning undesirable customers, than to listen to the hundreds of serious medical practitioners who have thought long and hard about the problem and are trying to be heard? Single payer advocates are not seen talking to you. Doctors and nurses are not seen in the White House. They are not even welcome in Baucus’s Senate Finance committee. Why not? And why are you seen playing an extended golf game with the CEO of UBS of Switzerland, a bank that is responsible for enabling hundreds of wealthy American tax dodgers while the budget cannot afford health care? Why not instead an American spokesman or woman for public health or the American education or labor community?

Finally, a word about the conservative/birther/nativist groups demonstrating, so to speak, against health care. What you see there is the white and somewhat elderly, as well as rural and southern wing of the working class. Yes, it is racist. Don’t pretend otherwise. America is deeply racist at all levels, and the working class has been controlled for centuries now by dividing it against itself by color. What more would you expect? We take it in with our mother’s milk. And yes, it is dangerous. Fascism is at work there. It can be seen in the lack of willingness to think and debate, the slogans, the religious undertones and the patriotic fervor. Many of these folks would be well satisfied with government in a military uniform. For too many of us in the working class, the only satisfying experience in our lives has been participation in the country’s endless war, as horrifying as that is. The working class fights the nation’s wars and dies in them. It is not surprising to see it trying to take some pride in that.

The countries in Europe know about fascism, as William Greider has pointed out in his book Come Home, America. They have lived first hand with its savagery and have taken steps to make sure that everyone in their societies has a voice in matters of importance, especially including economic matters, to try to avoid it happening again. You need to lead us into developing similar structures. Powerless people are dangerous people, and that is what you see in the streets now. You can start by an honest effort to speak for us. Please, Mr. President, exercise the power we gave you and let the chips fall where they may.”

Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2009

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