On a very cold March day in 1933, something that had been sorely needed happened that changed this country for the better. Having won the Presidency because of the abject failure of Herbert Hoover to deal with the collapse of the nation, Franklin Roosevelt - bis legs braced so he could stand at the podium to give his first inaugural address standings - said a few things that can be most wonderfully summed up with that memorable phrase concerning fear. In doing so, Roosevelt did something that endeared him to the hearts of the American people. He told them the truth they knew in their hearts, showing that he understood what lay at the heart of the American malaise.
Not too long after, in the midst of the near-collapse of the banking industry, he did something else that was unprecedented. He got on the radio to tell them what his Administration, with authority granted by Congress, was doing to keep the banks alive. He did so not in the funereal tones of approaching apocalypse or the haughty tones of a professor. Rather, he explained the complicated nature of the bank holiday, why it was necessary, and most important what the American people needed to do to help in a way that did not insult the intelligence of the American people. In this, and many other speeches and "fire-side chats", Roosevelt showed an appreciation for a basic virtue of democracy. While economics had become quite baroque, only to become nearly unintelligible to most people by our time, Roosevelt talked about the banking crisis, and many other issues, as if he understood them; and more important, he talked about them as if it were possible the American people could understand them.
If there is a most important difference between that time and ours, between that man and our current President, it lies right there. During the campaign, Barack Obama seemed to demonstrate a visceral faith in the American people, their intelligence and insight, and to bank on the voter's trust in his willingness to work with them to make this country run again. Since assuming the Presidency, and most especially since having his first bruising battles with Congressional Republicans (and one or two recalcitrant Democrats), he has retreated behind a wall of silence, and worse, compromise. As the country continues to stagnate, he speaks of "recovery". As social and cultural issues flay nerves frayed by economic distress, he has attempted to appease those who will never be appeased, and to give pat answers on topics that need more explanation.
The American people are afraid right now. We are, many if not most of us, afraid that despite our best efforts and the President's best intentions, headed toward further dislocations and decline. Rather than rallying the American people to work together, the President has operated as if the American people, their feelings and thoughts, are secondary. "Trust me," it seems, despite all the evidence that trust no longer exists, continues to be the theme the President offers the American people.
The screeching of so much of the country on the Manhattan Islamic center project, on illegal immigration, on gay rights are symptomatic not so much of the intrinsic importance of these questions for our nation's future as they are of the knife's edge upon which the nation's emotions are balanced. We are a people terrified of pretty much everything, and this fear is being played upon by political opportunists and demagogues to undermine the possibility of making this country better, of healing our economy and social and civil and physical infrastructure.
If the President would acknowledge this fear; if he would simply tell people what they know inside is true but have yet to hear from a person in authority, things might change for him. It seems, however, that he has lost touch with that electoral base that is most important - the emotional connection with those who saw in him the promise of something new. Not "the Messiah" the loons on the right talk about; just a President who made an emotional connection concerning possibility and promise that resonated with so many Americans. This emotional connection is now gone, and with it much of the good will and forbearance the American people had for the President.
Yet, really, all he needs to do is something that hasn't happened in a generation or more. All he needs to do is, in a few speeches, let the American people know that he knows their fear. Tell them what they are afraid of, and explain, as best he can without patronizing or insulting them, what he has done and will do to address the real issues at the heart of the American fear.
I just wonder if he either can or will do it.