"Oh, the vision thing."
That was the reaction of George H. W. Bush when he was urged to speak to a bigger picture beyond the small pieces of his legislative agenda. They may be strange succor for a Democratic President, but those words hold a crucial lesson and a grim warning for Barack Obama.
The lesson? Articulate a governing vision bold enough to dominate the bare-knuckle brawl of contemporary American politics, or start working on that resume. The warning? George H. W. Bush was the last U.S. President to serve only one-term.
No matter how strong President Obama's performance was in his first State of the Union address--and it was a very strong performance--at best he gave the American public pieces of the puzzle, but did not give voice to his big picture.
Invest in green industry, put people back to work, cut taxes for the middle class, revoke Don't Ask, Don't Tell, drawn down forces in Iraq, limit corporate political donations--yes to all, but why? What is the fundamental story of America in the world that grounds all these individual pieces in an overarching moral logic? After one year in the White House, the President still has not told us.
The consequences for such a glaring sin of omission on the part of the President will be dire.
Namely, because the President has not advanced his own big picture vision, the two competing visions already scrapping it out like angry dogs on the public stage will continue to polarize the electorate, chip away at the President's popularity, and stymie the legislature's ability to get anything done.
The first competing vision is the idea that "government is bad," which hails from the conservative politics of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Ron Paul. Since Obama took office, however, this vision has evolved from "government is bad" to "government is tyrannical." Day in and day out, the big story of American government as a tyrannical, even totalitarian force is dumped by the truckload on the public sphere.
The second competing vision is the idea that "Government is good," which hails from the liberal politics of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ralph Nader, and Dennis Kucinich. Since Obama took office, however, this vision has evolved from "government is bad" to "corporations are tyrannical." Day in and day out, the big story of corporations as a tyrannical, even fascist force echoes louder and louder across the political landscape.
Because the Obama administration has neither sided with nor articulated an alternative to these pugilistic political philosophies, all of his legislative items have been and will get caught in the cross fire like innocent bystanders at a road rage shoot out.
When health insurance reform came up, the "government is tyrannical" block argued that Obama's approach represented a "government takeover" of our lives that would lead to a radical loss of freedom. Obama's health care reform was the tip of the spear of an a totalitarian takeover of America, they argued.
On the other side, the "corporations are tyrannical" block argued that Obama's approach to health insurance reform would lead to the end of democracy and the emergence of a corporatist dystopia. Obama's health care reform was the first step in the corporate remaking of America as a feudal state.
Rather than advancing his own vision, President Obama set his reform agenda amidst these two warring ideas--where it was ripped to pieces.
And so it was, and so it will be, for every piece of reform he sends to Congress.
The State of the Union speech, with tens of millions of voters tuned in to listen, could have been the platform where the President once and for all unfurled his own distinct governing vision. But it was not.
Instead of a "the vision thing," the President's State of the Union address was couched in a patriotic theme.
When the going gets tough, as it has in the past, "We don't quit." America is no place for quitters. We succeed because we solve problems. The American spirit is--"resilient."
Part Tony Robbins, part General Patton, the President's narrative theme of "success through tenacity" was crafted to inspire the listener. At that task, he succeeded big. But the opportunity cost of choosing performance pzazz over clear governing vision (he could have done both) was that voters did not walk away with a strong sense of how our individual priorities fit within the future of the nation.
With so many problems to solve, voters will ask, why shouldn't we solve my problems first? Because government seeks to harm you, not help you, answers one side of the fight; because corporations are hurting our future, answers the other side. The only answer from the president is: politics.
What should be his vision? What should be the missing big picture from the President that gives logic and a sense of priorities to his agenda?
The answer, I believe, begins with two of the most basic four-letter words in the American vocabulary: work and land .
The fundamental basis of America is not the getting-and-spending of wealth, but what Franklin Roosevelt once called "the joy and moral stimulation of work." Without work, the foundations of our country, our communities, our families, and ourselves will begin to decay and, ultimately, collapse.
A President's governing vision should be grounded in the ideal of work and that ideal should lead to a substantive agenda of full employment, strong wages and guaranteed health care. And that same vision should fiercely protect in the fullest sense the lives of those now retired, as well as the lives of those who will enter the work force in the future.
At the same time, if we allow our industriousness to destroy the land--if we do not become stewards of the American landscape--then our work is in vain and our lives are meaningless. For hundreds and hundreds of years, the American dream has been rooted in the land. Our drive to cherish that land is not just a stop gap measure, it is the center of who we are as Americans.
A President's governing vision should be rooted in the idea of the American landscape and that ideal should lead to a substantive agenda of new energy innovation, technological innovation, as well as sustainable practices in industry and our day-to-day lives.
Whether government is big or small is not the issue. The issue is whether we have the courage and the drive to enlist every tool at our disposal to build a future guided by the American ideals of work and land.
Prior to his State of the Union Address, President Obama had flirted with the symbolism of work and land, but he had not articulated a bold vision. He has planted an organic garden on the White House lawn, but he has not called for a 21st-Century land ethic to guide or lives.
Likewise, the President has given speeches in factories and proclaimed commitment to putting people back to work, but he has not reached for all the tools at his disposal to create a 21st--Century public works program to restore public confidence.
And so the power of the President's rhetorical performance will elevate us for a short while-a day, maybe a week--but after that, the dueling visions will again take over the public square, the political stalemate will return, and the rising tide of cynicism will wash away more and more American idealism.
To all this, the White House would respond that polling shows 21.58% of the public prefers "pragmatism" to political bickering or that 22.2% of "independent voters" respond positively when the President talks about "solving problems," without siding with one or other ideological battles. To those voices in the White House, I say that one year is a long time in politics--a very, very, very long time. After one year of pushing "pragmatism" justified by polling on swing voters, the results are bad.
An administration that plays to swing votes at the expense of articulating a clear governing vision ends up mired in the very morass it claims to be avoiding. That is precisely where President Obama is now.
So, remember the vision thing, Mr. President, or else--suffer the same fate as those in the past who forgot it.