Wishing the President was more Presidential

I know the Republican Party has forced the government shutdown and potential default on our debt. And I know that a sub-set of the Republicans, Tea Party Republicans, are responsible for the madness going on in Washington. But I can’t help think that if President Obama had been more presidential our country would not be in this position.

For all of the irrationality of the Tea Party, somewhere deep inside there is a philosophic position – the Tea Partiers are concerned that the line separating the responsibilities of government from the responsibilities of the individual has shifted too far towards government, and that this shift will (is) lessening our freedom. Whether one agrees with them or not, this is a legitimate question – where should we as a country draw the boundary between individual and collective responsibility?

We have been debating this question since the founding of the United States. In our country’s first pass at forming a government, the Articles of Confederation, the line was drawn in such a way to greatly favor the individual, with almost no authority for the national government. Our founding fathers recognized that without a strong national government we would never be a strong nation and so re-drew the line – the Constitution greatly increased the power of the federal government and in doing so decreased the power of the individual. And each new generation has to decide for itself, in the context of its situation, technology, cultural evolution, where the line should be drawn.

In the United States, it is the role of the President to shape this conversation. He or she is the one member of our government that every person in the country has the opportunity to vote for or against. The President alone has what Teddy Roosevelt called “the Bully Pulpit”, the chance to talk to our nation as a whole. I think President Obama has done a credible job, and somewhere down the road even Republicans will come to appreciate his role in keeping our country from slipping into a Depression. But he has not used the Bully Pulpit, he has not engaged in the conversation over the proper balance between individual and collective responsibility. Not too long ago there was the thought that perhaps we had reached “the end of history”, that we had somehow settled the question once and for all. At times it seems as if the President believed that history has in fact ended, and his side won.

But history never ends, nor does the conversation on the balance between individual and collective responsibility. Over forty times the Republican-led House of Representatives voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, what they call “Obamacare”. Over forty times the minority party expressed their extreme dislike of how the boundary between individual and collective responsibility was being drawn. They never once suggested how they would re-draw that line. But did anybody think they would stop trying to roll back the Affordable Care Act? Did anyone think that they would suddenly agree to its expansion of government responsibility?

I cannot remember the President even once defending the Affordable Care Act – I cannot remember President Obama defending or even addressing the proper balance between individual and collective responsibility. The Democratic Party has largely stopped offering its own coherent vision of government, instead falling back on “but those guys are crazy.” Yes, the other side of the debate has grown irrational, in some ways even crazy. This has certainly proven to be a successful electoral strategy for the Democrats, but pointing out the other side’s craziness is not the same thing as explaining your side.

Sometimes it seems as if the Democratic Party is no better at enunciating its vision of the proper role of government than the Tea Party. When people ask me how the Republican Party got to where it is today, how it has strayed from any rational view of the role and responsibilities of government, I cannot help but wonder if this is part of the cause. Would the Republican’s view of government have strayed so far from reality if the Democratic Party was offering its own coherent vision? Would our country be facing this crisis if the President had used the bully pulpit to explain and defend his view of the proper balance between individual and collective responsibility?

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