America, in the view of President Barack Obama, is not a happy place. It is a dark region where people cheat each other; corporations brutalize the public, and opportunity is out of reach.
Obama’s relentless reelection focus on America’s demons is a communications error that could haunt his bid for a second term.
Americans want to be told the truth. They don’t want their president to pretend that the economy is thriving.
But what they probably won’t abide is a message that there is something fundamentally wrong with the nation that Obama, like some prophet preaching through Gomorrah, was sent to fix.
The last Democratic president to win reelection, Bill Clinton, mimicked Ronald Reagan’s feel-good “Morning in America” theme to coast to a second term.
But Obama is trying out a reelection model that posits a broken country which needs him to “finish the job” he started.
America, in Obama’s view, is an unfair place, where “our school system” is working “for just some children;” where immigrants live “in second-class status.”
The wealthiest — who do pay most of the federal income taxes — are unscrupulous cheats who would have their secretaries fork over a bigger percentage of their income to Uncle Sam than they do.
Corporations and their henchmen on Washington’s K Street have fixed the system so they can rip it off at will.
“Tell these members of Congress,” Obama instructed North Carolina high school students last month, in a pessimistic civics lesson, “that they don’t work for special interest, they don’t work for lobbyists. They work for you.”
Corrupt corporate interests are grabbing for themselves and lying to the public. “I did not run for office,” Obama said, “to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street,”
As for insurers, Obama has charged that they used “deceptive and dishonest” methods to advertise their opposition to his health reform plan.
Together, the wealthy and corporations are assailing the middle class.
“The only class warfare I’ve seen,” Obama said in September, “is the battle that’s been waged against the middle class in this country for a decade.”
For too many, Obama suggests, the American Dream is dead or dying.
“Millions are without work, and those who have work are still all-too-often struggling to get by,” he said recently to a group of Italian-Americans. “And for many, the dream that brought so many Italian-Americans to these shores feels like it’s slipping away.”
The avenues to success are not passable for everyone, and only Obama can reopen them.
“We still have within our grasp,” Obama said at a Denver fundraiser last month, “the ability to make sure that once again America is a place where anybody can make it if they try.”
If, that is, his forlorn fellow citizens are up to it.
“We’ve lost our ambition,” Obama said in California fundraiser last month, “our imagination, and our willingness to do the things that built the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam and unleashed all the potential in this country.”
Compare this to Clinton, who told voters in 1996 that he was presiding over a nation that was essentially well. He embraced some conservative values and even aligned himself with Republicans — signing the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as between a man and a woman; embracing welfare reform, and asserting that he had cut taxes.
The only thing he had left to do, Clinton asserted, was to tinker with things to “build the bridge to the 21st century.”
Obama’s vision reflects the worldview of a former community organizer, whose long focus has been on the disadvantaged. But this seems to have spurred him to see injustice around every corner.
Obama believes the economic crisis he is grappling with is a result of unfettered American greed.
“A free market was never meant to be a free license to take whatever you can get, however you can get it,” Obama said last year. “That’s what happened too often in the years leading up to this crisis.”
One can view the United States as a turbulent place teaming with sharks, rather than an oasis where all can safely navigate a way to success. But giving voice to such views might not win a majority in the Electoral College.
Keith Koffler, who covered the White House as a reporter for CongressDaily and Roll Call, is editor of the blog White House Dossier.
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