I did not see the CNBC town hall on the economy that President Obama held today, and I initially envisioned this to be another one of these Presidential meetings with Wall Street types where he begs them to “do the right thing” and support something not in the interests of their bottom lines. It was held in New York (UPDATE: it was at the Newseum in DC. Full transcript here.) but I guess the audience was generally sympathetic to the President, at least at one point, and they expressed their disappointment not with raising taxes on the rich, but with the totality of his Presidency:
An African-American woman who described herself as a chief financial officer, a mother and a military veteran said she was disappointed that Mr. Obama had not lived up to her once-lofty expectations.
“I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration. … I’m deeply disappointed where we are right now,” she said, adding that when she voted for Mr. Obama, she thought he would change Washington. “I’m waiting, sir. I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet. … Is this my new reality?”
Moments later, a young man offered a similar theme. He noted that the president had ignited a wave of inspiration for young people and students.
“That inspiration is dying away,” he said. “It feels like the American dream is not attainable for a lot of us. … Is the American dream dead for me?”
These comments strike at the heart of the dumbfounding strategy to browbeat the liberal base into accepting that the Presidency has been a towering triumph of liberalism. I had the occasion of speaking with Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, over the weekend. When asked about how he approaches voters, he finds the best policy is to be very straightforward. He said that he starts with “You’re right,” that things aren’t good right now, and that everyone has a right to be disappointed. He described the conversations his phone bankers are having with voters as something akin to therapy sessions, where voters spend a lot of time venting their frustrations. There’s only one way you can approach people in a mood like this – with some measure of validation. You have to accept their premise because any attempt to talk them out of their objective reality will be met with skepticism.
When some rich hedge-fund manager weeps about feeling “whacked like a pinata,” now, maybe that’s not the guy you have to validate, and I think Obama was absolutely right to whack right back:
“Now, you know, I have been amused over the last couple years, this sense of somehow me beating up on Wall Street. I think most folks on Main Street feel like they got beat up on. … There’s — there’s a big chunk of the country that thinks that I have been too soft on Wall Street. That’s probably the majority, not the minority.”
Obama went on to note that the top 25 hedge fund managers took home $1 billion in profits last year. “If you’re making $1 billion a year after a very bad financial crisis where 8 million people lost their jobs and small businesses can’t get loans,” Obama said, “then I think that you shouldn’t be feeling put upon.”
That’s just the truth, and so is the President’s dismantling of the Two Santa Claus theory, this idea that you can provide endless tax cuts and endless services. The rest of the country, the folks being “beat up on,” in the President’s terms, need that same kind of candor. People should not be laughed off for actually believing in the change that produced historic support in 2008.