What Obama could learn from Kennedy

Paul Schwietering
When one writes a weekly column, the first thing one must do is, of course, decide on the event to be covered in the column for a given week. There were a number of possibilities this week.

Herman Cain denied that he sexually harassed two female employees while he was President of the National Restaurant Association.

Whoever investigated the matter for the National Restaurant Association evidently didn’t believe Cain because the Association agreed to a settlement for a “five figure” sum for each of the women and asked them to sign a non-disclosure agreement as part of the settlement.

Rick Perry went to New Hampshire, and, like, wow, man, it was way cool to see him make a truly excellent speech.

However, this week political commentator Chris Matthews, while trying to pitch his new book about John F. Kennedy, contrasted President Obama with John F. Kennedy.

Matthews presumed to expound on what Obama could learn from President Kennedy. I was only four years old when President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas and I guess I was just too young, because I don’t remember him. I remember that when I was about 10 or so, my grandfather said that if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated he would have been one of our greatest Presidents. I am, however, extremely interested in history and especially 20th century history and particularly in great Democratic leaders of the 20th century. I have read quite a bit about Kennedy.

I am quite certain that Mr. Obama could learn a great deal from John F. Kennedy (if he wanted to). However, as he frequently does, Chris Matthews gets it exactly wrong about what precisely Obama could learn from Kennedy. Matthews observed that Obama’s base voters (Populist Democrats) are demoralized and feel that they have been “used” (Matthews’ word) to help get Obama elected and then were ignored as soon as the election was over. Matthews is absolutely correct in this part of his analysis. He then goes on to speculate as to why Obama’s base feels this way. According to Matthews, the Democratic base is demoralized because Obama “hasn’t asked anything of them” like John F. Kennedy presumably would have. In this part of his analysis Matthews blunders badly. The base is demoralized because they believe that Obama has betrayed them and his own core beliefs. The base is correct in believing Obama has betrayed them, but incorrect in believing Obama has betrayed his own core beliefs because Obama has none.

Obama signaled that he was preparing to betray his base and cater to Wall Street when he named his appointees. Two of them were Lawrence Summers and Rahm Emmanuel, and they were appointed to important positions. Since the administration of Jimmy Carter, one can always tell the direction an administration will take, at least initially, by the appointments the President makes. Although I felt intense relief after the election of 2008, I had forebodings when it was announced that these creatures of Wall Street would serve in the administration. It is very much like the old adage, “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.” In any event, my presentiments of impending disaster proved, unfortunately, to be correct.

When Obama took office Nobel Prize-winning economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz were standing on their chairs waving their napkins and shouting at the top of their lungs that you can’t patch a $2.2 trillion hole in the economy with an $800 billion patch, and they were doing this well before the deal was done. To make matters worse, a portion of the stimulus was wasted on tax cuts, the most inefficient and ineffective option to stimulate the economy.

Another lesson from the stimulus was that it is suicidal from the standpoint of stimulating the economy to waste money intended for infrastructure by giving it to the states. The politicians at the state level hoarded the money to maintain their state budgets amid declining revenues while avoiding any tax increase, and almost no infrastructure was built.

The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill was watered down in committee in both the House and Senate with no observable effort by the Obama administration to prevent it. The health care fiasco was unbelievable. The idea that John F. Kennedy would have tolerated the antics of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus is absurd. The most popular part of the original bill was the public option, which was eliminated because the insurance companies were opposed to it. The most unpopular part of the bill was the requirement to buy insurance, and that was kept in because the insurance companies wanted it. The proposal for “Medicare for all” was never considered by the Finance Committee because Baucus, who leads all members of congress in contributions from health insurance companies, was opposed to considering it.

In late July columnist and radio commentator David Sirota wrote that by his constant pre-”negotiation” concessions and pathetic “negotiation” tactics Obama was actually getting the policies he wanted and making the Republicans take the “rap” for it.

Sirota’s error is in assuming that Obama favors any particular policy, or cares about any particular outcome. Each issue was just an item on a checklist that needed to be “resolved” (“negotiated” away to the Republicans) so that he could claim another “accomplishment.”

Obama’s recent willingness to fight for his jobs bill (which is seriously flawed) is not the result of a sudden re-birth of principles in Obama (he never had any), but the stark realization that he better try to get his base back because the Republicans actually meant what they said when they made their famous promise to their base (“Our first priority is to make Obama a one-term President”). One of the reasons Obama has been so slow to realize that the Republicans were serious about that promise is that he never intends to fulfill many of the promises he makes to his own base.

Dante once said, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” What Obama could have learned from John F. Kennedy is that when there is a critical struggle between the moneyed interests and the American people over the future of democracy in the United States, a leader has to make up his mind which side he is on and then have the courage to stand his ground and fight.

Paul Schwietering is a resident of Union Township.