OK, now I get it. So many of President Obama’s decisions have puzzled me. Time and again, his tactics have belied a tone-deafness for what Americans truly care about today. That didn’t match up with the fairly shrewd candidate I saw last year. But with Wednesday’s speech to Congress, it’s all clear now — President Obama believes that he is Andrew Shepherd.
Andrew Shepherd, of course, is the eminently-likable, highly-polished Democratic president in Aaron Sorkin’s movie, “An American President.” A cute movie, but not one that most believe to be a faithful representation of life as the leader of the free world. But considering President Obama’s recent behavior, he seems to think the film is a blueprint for a successful presidency.
How does President Shepherd spend his days in the movie? Flitting from event to event, making speeches to adoring crowds, kissing his loved ones, and being a good father. Pretty much describes the past two months for our President.
Who are the only opponents to President Shepherd’s agenda? Hateful right-wing lobbyists and scheming Republicans who want to defeat him and do nothing. Our President seems to think he’s in a similar predicament, as he explained in last night’s speech to the nation.
When these forces of obstruction spend weeks in the movie attacking President Shepherd, he spends the month largely ignoring them while indulging in his personal life. While tens of thousands of Americans were speaking out against his liberal health care agenda at town halls across the country, President Obama spent most of August on vacation with his family, giving us updates on his ice cream preferences.
Just as his poll numbers are dropping, his opponent’s are rising, he’s losing votes on his bill, and everyone thinks President Shepherd will have to abandon his agenda in the face of overwhelming criticism, his aides demand that he come forward and speak out. And so he does, making a speech that compromises nothing, asserts that the nation stands with him, and claims that his opponents are not men of character.
President Obama, in the September of his discontent, also decided that the solution to his problems was to make a speech. He also made no compromises, asserted that the nation demanded exactly what he was selling, and emphasized that his opponents were liars and political hacks who want to kill reform. He even argued that the entire health care debate was about the “character of our country.”
But there’s an important point here. While the movie gives you the impression that President Shepherd wins the day — gets the girl, passes his gun control bill and her fossil fuel bill, and lives happily ever after — we don’t see the results. After Shepherd gives his climactic soliloquy, he goes to Capitol Hill to make his State of the Union Address. Even as he enters the House chamber to shouts of “Bravo!,” the astute viewer realizes we have no idea whether he wins. No votes have changed, no bills have passed; he’s just giving another speech to a friendly audience. We’re given the impression that all is well, but that’s all it is — an impression.
So it was, too, with President Obama. Our President entered the House chamber Wednesday to raucous applause. He left it to accolades from the press and plaudits for his delivery. But what of the votes? Whither the bill? Well, that’s where the movie magic ends.
President Shepherd is the epitomization of the liberal’s understanding of American politics. He’s a good guy with unimpeachable motives, and when he bothers to speak, everyone agrees with him. His only failing is one of communication — not ideas. You see, Democrats only fail when the refuse to play the game; if they show up, they win. There are no honest disagreements — only baseless attacks and distractions from those with selfish motivations. Liberals always have the public’s best interest at heart. If you find yourself on the other side of the argument, you’ve either been deluded (a prospective Democratic voter) or you are one of the bad guys (a Republican).
But Democrats are learning that this cinematic fantasy doesn’t match up with reality. After years of living in a media echo chamber, liberals cannot understand how more than half the country is telling Gallup and Rasmussen that they are wrong. It’s inconceivable to them that seniors – the greatest beneficiary of government health care – would turn their backs on them. Since the only time they lose an election is when Republican dirty tricks steal it, surely all the people need is another speech and they’ll “get it.” And now that they arguably have the best speechmaking president in a generation (ever?), they can only assume that there are no failures to communicate.
All these protestations aside, America isn’t reading from the same script as this American President. How he reacts to this simple truth will define his presidency. If he decides that he cannot ignore the public and ratchets back his ambitions, he will earn the country’s trust and open the door to many more opportunities to “remake America.” But if he decides that the nation doesn’t know what’s good for it, and that “this is the moment” to feed America the castor oil of nationalized health care, no amount of Hollywood razzle-dazzle will save his party from the wrath of the electorate.