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Obama’s Hand of Cooperation

November 3, 2012

In the week before the election, much of the eastern seaboard was hit by Hurricane Sandy.  Republican New Jersey Chris Christie was faced with the devastation left by Sandy and millions of people suffering in pretty harsh conditions.  He responded to his constituents’ emergency swiftly.  He also worked with FEMA and President Obama, setting into motion the pieces of our national infrastructure that was designed to enhance safety during such disasters and provide a backstop when the critical means for survival have been wiped out.

There is a photo that has circulated widely of the President, getting off a helicopter and being greeted by Gov. Christie.  They are shaking hands as they walk to their task of responding to the disaster.  Gov. Christie is quoted as saying much in praise of the President including, “The president was great last night.  He said he would get it done. At 2 a.m., I got a call from FEMA to answer a couple of final questions and then he signed the declaration this morning. So I have to give the president great credit. He’s been on the phone with me three times in the last 24 hours. He’s been very attentive, and anything that I’ve asked for, he’s gotten to me. So, I thank the president publicly for that. He’s done — as far as I’m concerned — a great job for New Jersey.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie greeting President Barack Obama to lead the storm response effort in the wake of Sandy.

This is not just refreshing because it is an act of bipartisanship that everyone talks about.  At this point, I am not so concerned about bipartisanship as much as I am impressed with this act of non-partisanship that President Obama marks the extended hand of cooperation that Obama has been extending for over four years. Too many Republican partisans have been terrorized into ignoring it or vociferously opposing, not Obama’s policies but the mere act of coming together at a “Team of Rivals,” as Dorise Kearns Goodwin phrased it.

It took Sandy to get one to honorably accept the invitation to make our county better.

This response to dire need is an example that Obama has tried to share with Republicans and show to Democrats.   It has been especially disappointing that Democrats at least didn’t pick up on it. It could have quelled the crass opposition. The message of cooperation over compromise is a winning one.  Still, it is even less rare than the partisanship of half a generation ago.

I don’t know anyone else who could have a chance at really has the vision that gives anyone a chance of pulling this off, besides Barack Obama.  Like Lincoln, his team of rivals is key and goes deeper than his appointment of Hillary Rodham Clinton (who grew up in a Republican household) and gaining the confidence of a statesman of the integrity and character of Colin Powell.  When Obama appointed Republican Ray LaHood to the cabinet, it was one smartest appointments that could carry this cause. LaHood is a very good guy and well respected. There are some good men and women in Congress, but there are still too many in DC for whom it is not a life-altering tragedy if stuff does not get done. When it’s staring them in the face, they can lend a hand to each other.

Today, Gov. Christie has the real lives of real people staring them in the face.  I did not like to dwell on the chorus of arm-chair pundits who’s clamor sang of politicians at the Capitol who are out of touch with “regular people.”  I still believe, basically, that politicians are not much different from the rest of us and their shortcomings are triggered by the same things that trigger ours.  But there is a privilege that got most of them there that is accentuated by their “honored” status.  It sometimes makes most of us invisible.  And like any of us, when we act in arenas where others or invisible or the day-to-day realities of existence for a lot of people.

This is especially apparent with the current Congress.  The Republican leadership and loyal minions decided early on that they could sacrifice the lives of a public desperately in need of economic recovery, community and personal health and acknowledged civil rights and the political and electoral gain would be justified.  They are far enough to not feel the pain that comes from not blocking Obama’s policies but the invitation for unprecedented cooperation.  Democrats showed their distance by not even having the words or message to respond.

This brings me back to Doris Kearns Goodwin and a story I related a couple of years ago. (See “Celebrity Crush” from November, 2010.) AT a booksellers convention, I had the honor of sitting next to her at the convention dinner.  She said something that shocked me.  She said, You know who I think should be the next President of the United States?  Paul Wellstone.

I smiled to myself.  Two thoughts crossed my mind.  The first was that she was just saying this because she was in Minnesota amongst a crowd that almost certainly loved Paul—unconditionally.  This may have been true, but I did not quiz her on this.

The second thought was, Oh, here we go again.  A well-off, out-of-touch elite who is going to go on about how wonderful and liberal Paul is and “don’t you just love him?”  But what she said surprised me.  It was smarter than a knee jerk and was what I now see as a distinction that, today, is fading: that distinction between liberal and progressive.

She said something like this:  You know, Paul and Sheila (Wellstone) are just about the only people on Capitol Hill and maybe the only ones in the Senate, who, when they go out, have to pay attention to how much they spend.  She reminded/pointed out that the Senate was a club of the very wealthy.  As such, most of them had little perspective on what it meant for most Americans to live day to day, make their way through the mine field of common economic and social realities.

I think it is why Obama and Bill Clinton make much better presidents than Republicans Bush, McCain, or Romney or Democrats Kerry or Gore.  Being a fortunate son is not what it takes to understand when to cooperate, compromise and build consensus.  The value the lessons of having a tough life growing up are showing, and there are many, not just politicians, who do not get those realities.

But Gov. Christie cannot ignore the reality of Sandy, nor the fact that much of the media if focused on neighboring New York and not his state–his people who where hit much harder.  News reports say that when Christie was asked if Romney would be joining him to tour the storm damage, he responded, “I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested.”  He added, “I have a job to do. I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power, I’ve got devastation on the shore, I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about Presidential politics then you don’t know me.”

Well, I think he is concerned about Presidential politics, now.  I am.  He was interested enough to consider running for the office, or at least bathe in the attention amid such speculations–and we were interested enough to give him that attention.  But maybe this is that place where Christie can swallow Romney’s pride and Obama the Democrats’ and get a chance to show America what real pride is made of.  And maybe the next four years will look more like the shining example streaming through the storm clouds.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe permalink
    November 14, 2012 12:50 pm

    Great, lucid essay, Clarence.

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