Weekend Post: What Obama's Encounter with Velma Hart Revealed

Weekend Post: What Obama's Encounter with Velma Hart Revealed September 26, 2010

Peggy Noonan issued two tour-de-force columns this week, the first on the fundamental moral sentiments behind the Tea Party movement and the second on President Obama’s dramatic encounter at a recent town hall meeting with a disenchanted African-American supporter named Velma Hart.  Noonan writes:

All anyone in America who cares about politics was talking about this week was the searing encounter that captured, in a way that hasn’t been done before, the essence of the political moment we’re in. When 2010 is reviewed, it will be the clip producers pick to illustrate the president’s disastrous fall.

Although she showed an over-fondness for the phrase “quite frankly,” Velma Hart was articulate and forthright, polite and good-humored.  A wife and mother, a CFO, a veteran — a woman not easily dismissed.  If you want to watch the whole response, you can see it here:


Noonan focuses in on the word “exhausted,” but I was also interested in the rest of the statement: “Quite frankly I’m exhausted.  I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are.  I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class.  I’m one of those people, and I’m waiting, sir.  I’m waiting.”

Three observations:

First, there are two things Mrs. Hart has been waiting for — an economic turnaround, and evidence that Obama is actually the change-agent he portrayed himself to be.  President Obama has become, in many respects, the victim of candidate Obama.  The eloquence of the latter, and the majestic canvas of the vision he summoned in the minds of his supporters, have made the record of the former seem paltry in comparison.  I don’t know to what extent Obama believed his own hype.  Did he really believe that the planet would heal and the seas recede, that we could fundamentally reform health insurance in the way he described without adverse economic consequences, that he could place so many extra burdens on the private sector and not expect high unemployment, and that he could dramatically change the way Washington works?

I honestly don’t know which answer would be worse.  If he did believe it, he was naive; he believed too many of the faerie tales that academics tell their students.  If he did not believe it, he was cynical, and unethically manipulated the expectations of voters.  You might say: that’s just politics as usual, promising the moon in order to get elected.  But (i) that’s precisely the point; Obama was supposed to be above politics as usual, and his former supporters are deeply disenchanted to discover that they’ve been had.  And (ii) when you promise not only the moon, but the sun and stars as well, you are almost condemning your administration to certain failure.  The Obama campaign wrote checks that the Obama administration could never cash.

Second, President Obama’s response does not seem to me quite as bloodless as it seemed to Noonan and others.  But several negatives come through.

  1. As I’ve written before (heh), President Obama suffers from an apparently irresistible temptation to say “as I’ve said before” more or less constantly.  I too suffer from this tendency, and I know, at least in my own case, that it’s due to pride.  I just have to tell people that this objection they have raised is not new to me; I’ve addressed it before; and if they had listened very better, giving my words the immaculate care they deserve, then they would not have done me the insult of raising the objection.  Perhaps I should give him more benefit of the doubt, but I suspect similar dynamics lie behind the words when Obama speaks them as well.  Once this verbal tic is brought to your attention, you will notice that Obama says it all the time.  It’s churlish.  I’m surprised his advisors have not told him to cut it out; I’m concerned that he is not self-aware enough to notice it, recognize what it says about him, and stop.
  2. Obama’s eloquence was once among his most formidable weapons; the campaign had to focus the electorate’s attention upon Obama’s words, because his record by itself was thin and certainly did not justify the Oval Office.  Yet eloquence becomes a detriment when the public no longer believes in your sincerity.  They grow word-weary.  They start to feel like the car buyers in the commercials: as the used car salesman promises more and more, they say, “Just show me the Carfax.”
  3. Finally, Obama needs to show and not tell us of his empathy for those suffering from the economic downturn.  He gives a pro forma “I feel your pain,” but he needs to step off the pedestal and allow himself to be vulnerable.  If you muted the television and merely watched his response, you might have thought he was telling the story of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.  I am not suggesting that President Obama begin taking acting lessons.  I’m suggesting that he should let his humanity show through — his imperfections, his griefs, his uncertainties.  The President knows the extraordinary regard in which he is held amongst his supporters.  He seems unwilling to step down from the pedestal — but stepping down from the pedestal is the only way to reconnect with the masses of ordinary Americans.

Finally, Noonan views the forthcoming election as a contest between the “exhausted” and the “enraged.”  In a contest like that, she writes, the more energetic group wins.  Yet I’m worried about the “enraged” part.  It’s all well and good for the electorate to express its justified anger against the Democratic party.  But I would rather they were electrified by a positive vision.  The Republicans offered their Pledge this past week, and of course it better expresses my own conservative instincts.  Elections have consequences, and I much prefer a Republican-controlled Congress.

Yet quite apart from the policies, we desperately need changes to the processes in Washington.  I fear the Republicans too will (again) fail to deliver on this score.  In fact, I am virtually certain of it.  The patterns by now are too ingrained.  Many of those processes — such as gerrymandering, earmark spending and trading votes for lobbyist money — are designed to benefit the incumbent.  It’s hard to surrender the processes that benefit you.  Christians who care about these things should pray, should encourage believers in Congress and in the Washington bureaucracy in general to stand for honesty, integrity and accountability, and should support political leaders who are willing to sacrifice their own self-interests in order to cleanse the diseases that are eating apart our democratic republic and driving us toward national bankruptcy.

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