Monday, January 18, 2010

Progressives and their Long View

As President Obama's popularity dwindles from its highs not just a year ago, I am struck by an observation I have of many liberals and progressives that seems to be shared by Obama:  the preference to focus on the future over the now.

And it's not just focus -- it's language, philosophy, and orientation.  The progressive in us is the consummate planner; the part of us that looks to give up something now (time, resources, opportunities) in the hope of netting returns greater than the investment in the future.  

One might call progressives "social investors" if one were a savvy marketeer. 

Yet, investing is easier to do when it's you putting your own goods on the line to invest in your own future.  Starting a business, investing in the stock market, investing in your child's future or well-being... these are investments that are fairly easy for each of us to make.  Yet it gets a bit trickier when you're looking to commit 300 million people to a shared investment strategy.

And this is what President Obama is staring down right now -- a nation that is generally not too happy that he's planning their investment strategies for them.  Be it Wall Street bail-outs, auto sector bail-outs, or even health insurance reform, a large swath of Americans just don't trust Government to invest for them. 

Which brings me to some advice for President Obama (because we all know he reads this blog) and progressives at large:  While you might be morally, ethically and strategically connected to investing for a brighter future, a large majority of Americans live in the now, care first-and-foremost about the now, and need to believe you share their interest in the now.

This means that while you plot and plan your social investment strategies, plans and policies, you cannot forget that the majority of people aren't there with you.  They're here.  And they want to believe their leaders see the world they see, and live in the world they live in. 

Conservatives have the opposite problem, of course -- they live almost exclusively in the now and aren't big on social investment projects.  They gain popularity readily because of this dogmatic pragmatism -- it's frankly the easier pill to swallow of the two philosophies. 

Neither philosophy has exclusive rights to being perfect, of course.  They both need to be balanced against each other so that we don't exclusively focus on today, and yet don't give up all of what we have today in exchange for tomorrow.   But what surprises me about the otherwise-savvy Obama is that he has put precious little effort into portraying his administration as one that cares deeply about today, and is carefully balancing it against the needs of tomorrow.

There's no doubt that the bulk of his campaign was all about investing in tomorrow, but the market collapse in 2008 (the same collapse that likely got him elected) trumped almost everything he was running on.   I'd make the case that he hasn't calibrated his message or policies enough to fulfill the evolving needs of a nervous nation that feels systemic economic change afoot, and really isn't sure where we're going to fit in when things eventually settle down.

People feel quite unsettled out there, and health insurance reform isn't the medicine they're looking for right now.   That will come as soon as they feel secure again in a job that doesn't have good enough health insurance.