Wednesday, August 18, 2010

From The Ground Up There's Little Difference Between Bush and Obama: Thoughts on a Conversation With a Working Class Neighbor

Professor Mark Naison
Fordham University

This morning at 6 AM, I ran into my former neighbor John today getting coffee at the local general store. John a white fifty something Navy veteran who works in a local lumber yard, used to live across the Street from me in the Springs section of East Hampton, but since his divorce, he lives in a house about a half a mile away. We greeted each other warmly and began to have one of he conversations that I used to look forward to when we were neighbors

John, who drives a pickup truck, wears a cowboy hat, and is a volunteer fire fighter and a local union rep, used to love to drop by to have a beer and talk about life and love and politics. I enjoyed hearing what the world and the nation looked like from his vantage point, and it was partly because of my discussions with him that I became convinced that Barack Obama could win the presidency in 2008.

But this time, in August 2010, his message was very different. John, who hated George Bush with a passion because he thought Bush was "handing the country over to the rich" was planning to vote Republican in November. His main reason for doing this, he said, is that "he didn't want to pay more taxes," but he wasn't too confident that his vote was going to make a difference. " It probably doesn't matter who is in office," he said, " I don't think that things are going to get better for a guy like me. But I'll tell you one thing. This guy we have in there isn't doing the job"

I felt my heart sink. This is not what I hoped to hear. I was hoping that John was going to vote Democrat, or sit out the election, rather than voting Republican. But clearly he was extremely disillusioned with President Obama and since he knew I had anObama sticker on my car, he was making sure to let me know.

If this had been a conversation taking place on the porch of my house instead of by a coffee machine in a general store, I might have responded with a long explanation of all the things Obama had tried to do for working class Americans - from saving the auto industry, to extending unemployment insurance, to pumping money into the economy through the stimulus bill- but I didn't have the time to do this and if I did I am not sure it would have made a difference

Because the bottom line is that John's life hasn't improved since Barack Obama came into office. He still has a job, but his pension is down,work is slow so he's not clocking overtime, and he can't sell his old house because no one is buying.

Now if John felt a deep personal identification with President Obama, he might be willing to give him more time. But for a working class guy who drives a pickup truck and whose major recreational pastimes are hunting and fishing, President Obama is a tough sell. Not just because he's black--,which is a factor but probably not a determinative one- (John has people of color in his extended family) but because he comes off as someone to whom life has been very kind. The beautiful wife, the kids who go to private school, the vacations in Martha's Vineyard and other upscale resorts, the time spent shooting hoops with NBA players, all those things make John feel that President Obama is not someone who really understands how people like John live or what makes them tick

The way John sees it, all politicians are crooks, and the rich get richer no matter who is in office, so he has to judge any individual politician by a combination of gut instinct and a hardheaded assessment of whether they have made his life better.

And on both of those accounts, John finds President Obama wanting

From past experience, I have learned to take what John says very seriously, not only because he is so honest, but because he is a leader in his own community,

As a lifelong Democrat, I am not very optimistic about what is going to happen in the November elections. Republicans are going to pick up huge numbers of seats because working class Americans will be holding Democrats accountable for the continued deterioration of the American economy and the failure of Democratic policies to improve the lives of ordinary people in ways they can appreciate and understand

Mark Naison
August 17,2010


Don Ryan, freelance writer said...

I fear your former neighbor represents a lot of sentiment among the citizenry. We in Massahcusetts saw this earlier this year when Scott Brown, a largely unknown politician, got elected senator over the presumptive favorite, Democratic Martha Coakley.

As you rightly point out, Obama took on a slew of severe issues when he swore the oath of office. And although I think there has been substantial progress (remember we were talking about he imminent meltdowen of the national economy, for one), he is being blamed for the country's ills.

Americans are an impatient lot. We look for quick fixes, whether the issue is politics, sports, or weight control. Too many quick changes in direction or approach does not solve systemic political issues, win championships, or make you slimmer.

I'd tell your friend to consider the overall philosophy of our political officeholders and candidates. There is a big difference. Obama espoused a set of opinions and policies that drew upon the "better angels of our nature" (to borrow Lincoln's lofty phrase), and for a majority of us represented a much better choice than the Republican alternative, which seems to be a diametrically opposed philosophy.

I'm sticking with Obama because I believe in his message. I'm not expecting a quick fix and know I may be hurt financially in both the near term as well as the long term to achieve his vision. I think it is worth the price because I think we'll end up with a better society. I hope others arrive at this same conclusion.

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