Disappointments: The President, Congress, and the State of the Union
Tonight President Obama will give the State of the Union speech before Congress as required by our constitution. Our political leaders, from the President to the Congressional members, will be on television telling us what they believe is the state of the Union, what they plan to do about it, and how they will fix the ills of our economy, government, and society. Listen carefully to what they say, what they don’t say, and how they say it.
Leadership requires a backbone, principles, goals, strong ethics, clear direction, specific game-plans, communication, motivation, inspiration, and the courage to be unpopular. These characteristics of leadership would serve well our present-day politicians.
Unfortunately, I regularly find myself disappointed with politicians who seem to have the potential to be great, but would rather be safe. These safety-first politicians say what they think you want to hear, but rarely do they say what they plan to do. They avoid answering tough questions because they may end up alienating this or that group. In the end, their only clear goals are to get elected, to raise money, and to make powerful friends.
Politicians play the game of denouncing lobbyists who represent rich and powerful clients or interest groups, but end up quietly accepting large amounts of money, donations, contributions or gifts from them, or worse, they appoint them to their staff.
“Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich by promising to protect each from the other” – Oscar Ameringer
There are politicians who will attempt to deceive you by using weasel words or by speaking out of both sides of their mouths in the hopes of making you believe what you want to believe.
For example, the politician who angrily denounces federal lobbyists, while secretly accepting money from state lobbyists, is using the word ‘federal’ to weasel out of telling you about the money he is taking from ‘state’ lobbyists. Likewise, the politician who, when asked where he stands on a controversial issue, presents both sides of an argument, but never tells you where he stands, hoping you will hear what you want to hear, is either trying to deceive you or he lacks principles.
But it is not difficult to figure out what politicians will do or where they will stand on the issues: Follow the money… that’s what they will do, they will follow the money. That is why finance campaign reform is so important and why it is so sad to see the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) be so intentionally ineffective. (But that is another story for another day.)
So, why do we believe our politicians when they promise everyone everything? We behave as though we have fallen in love with them, justifying and defending their misdeeds and broken promises, becoming dumb and blind to their weaknesses and failings, and railing against anyone who has the slightest critique of them. A few years ago, if you critiqued President Bush, you were unpatriotic; and, now, if you critique President Obama, you are a racist.
Why do we do that? Why do we limit the national debate on assessing the performance of our politicians by attacking each other?
Perhaps we so desperately need to believe in someone that we blindly fall in love with the first politician who says all the right things, telling us what we want to hear. But history repeatedly shows us how dangerous that can be and a democracy requires us to dispassionately hold our elected officials accountable.
In my family, there was one particular promising politician who grabbed everyone’s attention and stole most of their hearts. And I could see why, he was dynamic, intelligent, and gave great speeches, hitting all the right notes, saying everything you wanted to hear.
But it is my nature to reserve judgment until I do my research, after all, anyone can say anything. A person’s actions and accomplishments speak more loudly than words, and a politician’s record is more indicative of what they will do in the future than are campaign promises and great speeches. And, for me, there was a lot lacking in this talented candidate; there was promise, but I found more ambition than accomplishment, more rhetoric than specific plans.
In the end, my decision was made by one important lapse in this politician’s character, a principled pledge he made, which he promptly broke for self-interest. This promising politician, who promised to use public financing on principle, signing an agreement to that effect, vowing to work with the other candidate to make sure that they both adhered to those guidelines, announced, a year later, that he was breaking this pledge. Why? Because he raised so much more money than his opponent, so much more than any other candidates in history, that it was not in his self-interest to turn away nearly a billion dollars in campaign contributions.
That simple action spoke volumes to me about this politician’s character and principles, and, as it turned out, it would foreshadow other broken promises.
The same politician who promised to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, also promised that, if needed, we would increase the number of troops and that we would not leave if the conditions on the ground did not permit it. People on both sides of this issue walked away thinking he stood on their side.
The same politician who said he was against NAFTA, had his people privately assure Canada and Mexico not to worry about the campaign rhetoric.
The same politician who endeared himself to working class voters in Pennsylvania by speaking to their concerns, flippantly described them in San Francisco as “bitter” voters who “cling to their guns or religion.”
The same politician who promised environmentalists to protect the environment, later pushed for an expansion of deep-sea oil drilling in the Gulf, around Florida, along the Eastern seaboard… and then the BP oil disaster happened.
The same politician who gave speeches at rallies saying he was in favor of a single-payer system for health care in order to create true health care reform, later revised it to a less robust public option, and later gave up on health care reform altogether and offered only minor health insurance reform.
The same politician who promised to get tough on the financial and banking industry is also the same one who has surrounded himself with former Wall Street executives, allowing the watering down of any tough financial and banking industry legislation and issuing an executive order this month to get rid of “outdated [business] regulations” as an olive branch to business leaders.
The same politician who proudly bragged about not taking money from federal lobbyists, took a lot of money from state lobbyists and then quietly hired lobbyists to his staff after emphatically promising he would not hire any lobbyists.
The same politician who argued the devastating effects on the economy of the Bush Tax Cuts for the wealthy, unabashedly renewed the Bush Tax Cuts for another two years in order to help the economy.
The list is endless of campaign promises that did not align with actions of governance, and the disappointment is so great because the expectations and the hope for change were so high. And that, perhaps, is why so many who voted for that politician were disillusioned enough to not show up to vote a few months ago in the mid-term elections.
But I did not vote for that politician, the candidate whom I thought deserved my vote was not on the ballot, I had to write her name in as a matter of conscience and I had to hope that I was wrong about the promising politician with whom so many fell in love, and I wished him, and continue to wish him, great success for the sake of our shattered economy, for the sake of so many who are unemployed, for the sake of so many who are losing their homes, for the sake of our children who are inheriting a huge deficit, a terrible public education system, and a foul environment… in other words, for the sake of our Union.
As disappointed as I am with the left, I am all the more disappointed with the right. Both sides of the proverbial political aisle have disappointing promising politicians. However, we can never stop hoping that they will live up to the better part of themselves, to their campaign promises, and to our expectations of how they should govern. We need to continue to hold them accountable for their words and their actions.
So tonight, in a few minutes, as we watch the President of the United States give the State of the Union speech to Congress, and as we later listen to the Republican and Tea Party responses, make sure to pay attention to what they say and what they don’t say, listen for the weasel words, and don’t forget to follow the money, if you want to figure out what they will probably do and where they will probably stand.
Martie Hevia (c) 2011 – All Rights Reserved