The President had a good day yesterday, beating back some of the more ridiculous claims made about the health care reform plans making their way through Congress. It must be a bizarre feeling to be in charge of a large and effective White House press office, with as much access to the media as you want, in the twenty-first century no less, and find yourself having to explain that the proposals do not, in fact, call for death panels. One youngster outside the rally held a sign "Obama Lies! Grandma Dies!" which reflected poorly on the child's parents. She was not far from the man who showed up with a gun and a sign that read "Time to water the Tree of Liberty." So, the calm, measured explanations of the President benefited from comparison to say the least.
Still, there was in the President's manner and tone a hint of condescension. I am sure the moment was rich. And, I am sure the temptation is great when the charges are so wild and the facts of the legislation so pedestrian. But, that hint of condescension nearly brought down Obama's presidential campaign last April when he spoke, or misspoke, about rural citizens who "cling to religion or guns or antipathy to people who aren't like them" when faced with economic hardships. The comment did not go over well with voters in the upcoming primary in Pennsylvania which, as James Carville once observed, has Philadelphia at one end and Pittsburgh at the other and a whole lot of Alabama in between.
Now, let's be honest. President Obama probably is much smarter than any three other people you know. He did not get to his high office by luck or chance. He has an uncommon measure of effectiveness, determination, focus, raw intelligence and people skills. In other words, in most of the ways our culture measures human successfulness, Obama probably is looking down at the rest of us. Our democracy, however, does not recognize such distinctions and lucky for candidate Obama that enough gun-clingers in Pennsylvania voted for him that he won the nomination and then the presidency.
This would all be academic banter were it not for the headline in this morning's Post "A Recovery Only A Statistician Can Love." The quote is from senior economist Mark Vitner at Wells Fargo and it illustrates what I predict will be the central challenge of the Obama White House in the coming months. The fundamentals of the economy may indeed be turning around and the companies that emerge from the recession may be more productive and more efficient, but in the world of politics, you can't call it a recovery until people start getting hired and wages start going up. This will be frustrating because the very smart economists who work in the White House and at the Treasury Department will be able to see the good news in the numbers that will remain opaque to the rest of us.
President Obama's economic team is brilliant and we want brilliant people working on fixing the nation's economy. But, Tim Geithner has pretty good job prospects when he leaves the Treasury Department and Larry Summers one experience of job insecurity had nothing to do with the economy and everything to do with the most inside of inside politics, Harvard's faculty turf wars. These advisors will reassure the President that no more action is needed when the economy starts to expand significantly but he will be out on the hustings hearing tales of woe. The disconnect in America between the upper classes and the rest of us has never been greater and the President must be very, very careful not to show so much as a hint of frustration with those who cannot, like his economics team, see the good news in the numbers yet. Whatever else he does or doesn't do, President Obama should speak every day with someone who has lost their job, someone who lacks health insurance, someone who had to drop out of school because they can't afford it. People who are out of work may not be able to read the economic tea leaves. And they may or may not not be very articulate about their circumstances. But, they are the people whose votes gave the Mr. Obama the opportunity to lead the country and to select the best and smartest advisors he could find. Now, in addition to clinging to our guns and our religion, we are clinging to him and to the hopes he has raised. A slow, anemic economic recovery may not help the President's favorability rating, but a hint of condescension will kill it.