I went to the White House Friday week for a full day listening and talking back to top White House officials with about 100 Democratic activists and organizers from California, organized by the Courage Campaign.
The White House folks seemed to listen hard. Gathered in an auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, we heard from top staff including chief of staff Bill Daley, senior advisors David Plouffe and Valerie Jarrett, EPA chief Lisa Jackson, and Labor secretary Hilda Solis, along with other staff on specific issues. They asked us not to offer specific quotes from people, but they didn't offer up any juicy secrets or stray from the administration talking points we've all heard before.
They got an earful of what they have certainly heard before as well: like many others across the country, we wanted the president to fight harder for bolder programs to reduce unemployment and address the foreclosure crisis.
There were a series of breakout sessions on a variety of issues: immigration, lesbian and gay rights, labor and environment. But the concerns were the same. Would the president fight harder? When would he compromise and how much would he give away? I was disappointed that the White House didn't offer a breakout session on a especially critical issue for Californians: the foreclosure crisis.
According to the White House, President Obama doesn't get credit for how he hard he has fought against tough foes and and an economic crisis he didn't create. They cited his recent, trip to the bridge between Rep. John Boehner's and Sen. Mitch McConnell's districts where he channeled former president Ronald Reagan, exhorting the Republican leaders, "Help us repair this bridge."
I keep wishing President Obama would channel FDR, who thought that government could actually work with people to solve problems, instead of Reagan, who preached that government was itself the problem, and that it should be starved, shrunk and gotten out of the way.
Channeling one of Reagan's pithy phrases might be OK, but we'll never reduce unemployment right now using the Gipper's approach.
For that, we'll need the fearless, positive, can-do approach of FDR, who knew that government could help when the private sector wouldn't. He never achieved his goal, according to William Leuchtenberg, in Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. That was to put ALL unemployed Americans in the Depression to work. His programs only created jobs about a third of them, but not for lack of trying.
Not all of his program was so simple, but some of it was. For example, he gave unemployed white-collar workers jobs teaching people to read.
While he didn't face the monolithic, intransigent opposition President Obama faces in Congress, he offered a bold and pragmatic vision that included vilifying the bankers whose wild speculation threw the country into Depression, and acknowledging that the country was a in a deep crisis that would require dramatic, sustained government action.
Measuring Obama's Jobs Act by the standard of what FDR was able to accomplish, you can see how his proposal falls short. If Republicans passed it whole, which is unlikely, it would create at most 1.9 million jobs, providing work for nowhere near one-third of the nation's unemployed.
Obama's plan appears to be motivated by fear - fear of failure, fear of Republican rejection, fear of alienating independent voters, when what we need is audacity.
It does not seem to be motivate by an audacious vision of government action that would actually get the country back to work.
The jobs plan still might not pass, but what people are hungry for, more than bipartisanship, is that audacious vision that Obama promised and FDR delivered.
Has President Obama been so busy channeling Reagan that he forgot what FDR said about fear?
Mr. President, tune in to the right channel!