President needs to ask the big questions

June 27, 2010


Josh Billings, who would be known as the greatest American humorist of the 19th century if Mark Twain hadn’t been born, once said that if we give up our minds to little things, we shall never be fit for big ones. Barack Obama has many problems, but he does not suffer from Billings Syndrome.

He has taken on health care, which accounts for about a seventh of the biggest economy on the globe. He has signed an $800 billion stimulus bill, the biggest spending surge in American history. He added automobile companies to the American government’s investment portfolio. He appointed a “special master for compensation” to oversee Wall Street salaries and bonuses at companies receiving federal bailouts.

Obama is not tinkering with school uniforms (Bill Clinton), nor questioning which bolt was attached to which flange when water gushed out of a grate outside the White House after an emergency generator system malfunctioned (Jimmy Carter).

The big questions

The president does not think small. But taking on the big issues is not the same as asking the big questions.

Franklin Roosevelt once said that the presidency was “pre-eminently a place of moral leadership,” and his fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, called it a “bully pulpit.” But in its ideal form, the presidency is a place to examine big questions.

Abraham Lincoln did so when he explored the nature of democracy and, something that he discovered was quite separate, the nature of human equality. The two Roosevelts and Ronald Reagan did so when they spoke of the role that government should play in the economic life of the nation and in the personal life of the citizen. Woodrow Wilson did so when he asked whether morality was compatible with balance-of-power politics.

Obama, a onetime professor of constitutional law, has the intellect but maybe not the inclination to examine big questions. He offers his views on important issues, to be sure. Yet he has not spawned a debate as big as his actions. Perhaps he thinks that actions speak louder than words — an admirable conclusion for a man sometimes criticized for being more a wordsmith than a Wordsworth, who defined an entire movement.

But one of the reasons Franklin Roosevelt is regarded in the top tier of American presidents, and Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan will eventually settle in the next rung, is because they spawned great debates about great issues.

It is, of course, still early in the Obama ascendancy. If he serves two terms, Obama’s time in the White House thus far will account for merely 18 percent of his presidency.

Stirring important debate

While FDR and Reagan set forth their philosophies — and prompted deep, substantial debates about their viewpoints — in the first half-hour of their presidencies, Theodore Roosevelt, who assumed office after his predecessor was assassinated, didn’t have an inaugural address to set the tone of his presidency and set in motion a grand debate. But within two months, in his first annual message to Congress, Roosevelt laid out his antitrust policy, speaking of “real and great evils” inherent in big corporations.

But that didn’t mean important debates were over in 60 days. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine came in the third year of his administration and the Food and Drug Act, giving Washington a substantial regulatory role, came in his fifth year. More than any other president, Theodore Roosevelt paced himself.

Perhaps Obama will do so as well. But right now he is drowning in a gulf of oil.

It is beyond debate that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is one of the great environmental catastrophes of the modern age. But unlike Hurricane Katrina and the Dust Bowl of the southern plains in the 1930s, this disaster has a manmade cause and a corporate culprit. Government has a role in addressing this problem, in assuring restitution, in policing remediation. But a president who becomes preoccupied with this crisis inevitably will become prisoner of it.

Indeed, a president who was preoccupied by the 52 American hostages in Iran in 1979 and 1980 became a hostage himself. Obama is now playing a leading role in a summertime rerun of the Carter hostage crisis.

In the Carter years, ABC’s “Nightline” each evening counted the days of the American diplomats’ captivity (“America Held Hostage”). In the Obama years, The New York Times now has a daily summary on events in the Gulf of Mexico (“Day 65: The Latest on the Oil Spill”).

Obama clearly understands that the gulf oil spill has raised important questions about the environmental cost of our lifestyle; about mankind’s responsibilities to the small species, as the Swedish-born chairman of BP might put it clumsily; and about humans’ relationship to the Earth. He knows, moreover, that the oil spill is, along with the terrorist attacks of September 2001 (including the wars they spawned in Afghanistan and Iraq) and his own election in November 2008, one of the three signature events of the 21st century so far.

Some suggested topics

But while there are huge costs to the environment from this oil spill, there are large costs to our civic life in our failure to have anything more high-minded than a partisan debate on the big issues of the Obama era.

Here are a few for a start: What is the relationship between business and Washington? When, how and why does a culture steeped in individualism and capitalism take over the commanding heights of the economy such as Wall Street, the banks and the automobile companies?

Let’s keep going: Is there a difference between the price of goods produced by American companies overseas and the cost — to America’s workers and to workers overseas — of making them there? If Washington can regulate working conditions at home, should it regulate the practices of businesses working overseas? Or does it have no business doing either?

I’ve got more: When do you stop worrying about stimulating the economy with spending and start worrying about drowning the economy in deficits?

And, finally: What happens when a country, which has been a war zone for generations and an arena for colonization and big-power struggles since the 19th century, suddenly becomes known as the repository of $1 trillion in mineral resources instead of a forbidding mountain wasteland?

I knew if I lived long enough I would find a socially redeeming aspect to Joan Rivers. Now’s the time. We need a debate to go along with our assortment of debacles. As Joan would say: Let’s talk.

— David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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