Monday, September 20, 2010

The land of hot dogs & beans

Irony of ironies: In this the 24/7, immediately omniscient Information Age, good news still travels like the Pony Express. That's the only conclusion you could come to with today’s news that, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the recession that began in December 2007 officially ended in June ... 2009. (Now they tell us.) In the reverse of how it was when the economy first cratered (when the Feds told us what we'd already been living for months), the official announcement of the formal end of economic hostilities is a whimsically leading indicator — way out in front of any real-world conditions  that would make such a forecast believable.

John and Jan and Janiqua Q. Public would beg to differ. They’d probably love to say so to the president of the United States.

As President Obama is besieged on a daily basis with comments and blog posts, op-eds and professional opinions from those who have a problem with his economic policies, after awhile it must start to fade into an audible background hash, a white (black, Latino and GLBT) noise from which it’s difficult to discern anything specifically and briefly powerful, anything that breaks through the chatter that both dominates and deadens debate in the public square.

We can thank Velma Hart for giving us one of those breakthrough moments today. Hart, the chief financial officer for the AMVETS veterans service organization, got the chance to speak her mind to President Obama today, at a Washington, D.C. town hall sponsored by CNBC, the financial cable network. In a few minutes, Hart expressed the frustration that’s felt by millions of Americans. Others spoke there too; even a Wall Street hedge-fund tyro (a one-time Obama classmate) dared to show up. But it was Velma Hart who hit home.

"I've been told that I voted for a man who said he's going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I'm one of those people, and I'm waiting, sir," Hart told the president.

"I'm waiting. I don't feel it yet," said Hart, an Army Reserve veteran. "And I thought, while it wouldn't be in a great measure, I would feel it in some small measure."

"I'm also a mother. I'm a wife. I'm an American veteran, and I'm one of your middle-class Americans. And, quite frankly, I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now."

"I have two children in private school. The financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family," Hart said. "My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs-and-beans era of our lives. But, quite frankly, it is starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we are headed again."

"Quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly: Is this my new reality?"

◊ ◊ ◊

The president’s response was, frankly, less than inspiring.

"As I said before, times are tough for everybody. So, I understand your frustration."

"The life you describe — one of responsibility, looking after your family, contributing back to your community — that's what we want to reward," Obama said, noting Hart’s own personal narrative as representative of the "bedrock of America."

In his response to Velma Hart, and to others at the same event, the president mounted a vigorous defense of the policies and changes his administration has navigated through Congress, including relief for homeowners facing foreclosure, an increase in college scholarships and aggressive (and long overdue) measures to protect consumers against credit-card and mortgage companies.

But there was something wearily procedural and boilerplate in his response; on this issue Obama hasn’t fully, or certainly with any consistency, captured the rhetorical high ground and held it. The Obama White House has been a step behind in setting the agenda on restoring the economy, and framing the debate. His reputation is paying the price for that now; his party may pay a price for it in November.

◊ ◊ ◊

Velma Hart gave President Obama the these-are-the-stakes distillation he needed; without a pollster in the room, without a position paper anywhere, the American people via Velma delivered a message to the White House and the Democrats they can’t overlook, lest the bedrock of America land on him and his party like a ton of bricks.

What Velma Hart said was a supremely unspinnable moment in the national life. Her rhetorical call to arms, quietly but urgently gotten across, is a real-world assessment of Obama’s achievements and the impact of those achievements — one that’s impossible for the president to ignore:

Patience is not indefinite. When rank-and-file Americans begin to contemplate a trade of working-class notions of America as land of milk and honey for a grim reality of America as a land of hot dogs and beans ... you, sir, are in trouble.

Image credits: Velma Hart: CNBC.

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