Ultimately, Obama’s calls for national conversations, while resonating with his high-minded interpretation of American democracy, also reflect the failure of one critical conversation he has pledged to fix: the gridlocked conversation in Washington.
“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America!” he thundered at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Four years later, Obama pledged to get us away from politics as usual. “We need to get beyond the old ideological debates and divides between left and right,” he urged just days before the vote. He called for a “new politics — a politics that calls on our better angels instead of encouraging our worst instincts.”
Yet, whether because of Obama or despite his best efforts, Washington remains divided, and the nation does, too. Polls show that our partisan gulf is greater than ever, and even the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat in Congress have little in common. The president’s signature health-care law did not flow from a conversation that brought people together; it passed without a single GOP vote. And Obama himself seems torn between trying to fix the conversation in the capital or going over his opponents’ heads and directly addressing the nation.
So, are we just not capable of having real conversations anymore? I’m sure you’ve heard: Just like we were “bowling alone” in the 1990s, untethered to the groups that once defined us, now we’re “alone together,” our gadgets linking us only to the like-minded or the ephemeral. So we’re too distant, or too distracted, to take seriously political calls for national conversations.
But consider who has launched the true national conversations over the past five years. It hasn’t been politicians; they’re usually playing catch up. For better or worse, it’s been Adam Lanza and George Zimmerman. It’s been the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Sgt. James Crowley and professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. It’s been the original tea party protesters and the people in Zuccotti Park. It’s been Junior Seau. And Sandra Fluke. And Hurricane Sandy.
It’s even been part-time high school football refereeLance Easley, who on Sept. 24 thrust his arms in the air and signaled a Seattle Seahawks touchdown — outraging a sports-crazed nation and forcing the NFL to negotiate a new contract with its regular referees three days later.
Now that had the nation talking.
Read more from Outlook:
Obama and ‘responsibility’
In Obama’s speeches, one favorite phrase: ‘Let me be clear’
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