The National Catholic Review

My friend the Nation columnist Eric Alterman just gave me a copy of his new book Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, and analysis of how the weaknesses of the American political system have ganged up on the president and made it difficult for him to deliver on the promises of his 2008 campaign. I’m just getting into it, but I know the author shares my own disappointment, perhaps for different reasons, with Obama’s performance.

Personally, I am sickened when he brags about having killed Osama BinLaden and his followers either by sending Navy Seals or systematic assassinations of bad guys—plus anyone else with the bad luck of being in the neighborhood—with his fleet of drones. I realize that for political reasons he wants to avoid projecting the image of a wimp. But real men, especially those who call themselves Christians, don’t talk with satisfaction about the men they have killed.

But two major documents have appeared within the last few weeks whose purpose is to refocus pubic attention on the “other” Obama, the one so many thought they were voting for, then became disillusioned when he didn’t respond to the economic crisis with a New Deal-like works program: rebuild the infrastructure, raise the standard of living the average middle-class American, and pull the unemployed poor out of their poverty. The Obama we elected was pushed into the background by the “community organizer” Obama who thought that a compromise with the Republican congressmen whose only goal was to undermine his presidency would win them over.

First, Obama’s White House office on religion sent out a list of quotes from key documents which embodied Obama’s religious ideals. The first was his historic “Call to Renewal” Speech on June 26, 2006, delivered to Jim Wallis’ Call to Renewal conference, in which he criticized both the religious Right and the secular Left. Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne called it the most significant statement on politics and religion since JFK’s 1960 address in Houston. What stands out beautifully is his insistence on the connection between religious belief and social justice.

The secularists are wrong, he says, when they suggest we leave our religion at the door before entering the public square. The great reformers of American history—Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King—used religious language for their cause. “So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.”

A practical application: We need Christians Jews, and Muslims on capitol hill talking about the estate tax. “When you’ve got an estate tax debate that proposes a trillion dollars being taken out of social programs to go to a handful of folks who don’t need and weren’t asking for it, you know we need an injection of morality in our political debate.”

 

The other is the Dec. 6 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, where Teddy Roosevelt gave his “New Nationalism” speech in 1910. To The Nation, this was “real talk” about how, in Obama's words, the “basic bargain that made this country great has eroded” and how this is a “make or break moment for the middle class.” According to the Nation, the speech was one “Obama should have given years ago; it took the Occupy movement to make him do it.”

To Alex Mikulich, in the National Catholic Reporter, “this marks the defining moment of his presidency...a moral framework resonant with Catholic social teaching.” Its three themes match Catholic social principles: 1) The economy ought to serve people, not profits. 2) labor must take priority over capital; and 3) property must serve the common good. His attack on the “trickle down” theory of economic justice is devastating. “It doesn’t work. It has never worked.” “We simply cannot return to this brand of ‘you’re on your own’ economics.” Inequality hurts us all. “Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high—priced lobbyists...and runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder.”

This is just a taste. Read it. Tell the diocesan papers to prints excerpts and the bishops and pastors to preach on it. The talk is very long. But I can’t recall a speech like it which the voters can wave in his face every day when he is tempted to compromise it away.

Can he disappoint us again? Sure. Is there anyone else on the horizon with the same vision of economic justice, inspired, to some sincere degree, by religious belief?

Raynond A. Schroth

 

Comments

Amy Ho-Ohn | 1/2/2012 - 8:44am
I think it is right that the New Deal failed to raise the standard of living of the middle class. But it alleviated a lot of suffering. One hopes nobody commenting on a Catholic blog is too cool to consider the latter an important goal.

I propose the Emporer Charlemagne Test: Charlemagne did not have a "fulfilling" job, a car, cable TV, a college education, vacations on the beach or Ritalin for his annoying, dim-witted children. But he did have a warm place to sleep, a roof that didn't leak and a sufficient, though not especially nutritious, diet; and he knew how to read and write.

If your lifestyle is better than Charlemagne's, you don't really need a government handout right now. Any politician who promises you more benefits is going to sound to me like he's trying to buy votes. (If he tells me I only disagree because I'm dumb, greedy and racist, I won't mind, but it won't make me vote for him either.)

But no American should have a lifestyle worse than Charlemagne's. And, until billionaires decide donating to the St. Vincent de Paul Society is more worthwhile than donating football stadiums, that means the government is going to have to be involved.

(IMHO, as usual.)
J Cosgrove | 1/1/2012 - 11:21pm
Some comments:
 
''analysis of   how the   weaknesses of the American political system have ganged up on the president and made it difficult for him to deliver on the promises of his 2008 campaign.''
 
I am not sure this is true.  All I know is he promised hope and change and we have sure got that.  He had a large majority in both houses and got three major bills through Congress (stimulus, healthcare and financial reform) so how is that not delivering on his promises.  He got the debt ceiling raised without really giving up anything.  He is bringing the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan which is not something a Republican would do.  Sorry this is not a failure 
 
''But real men, especially those who call themselves Christians, don’t talk with satisfaction about the men they have killed.''
 
I agree.  My guess is that he thinks he needs this to bolster his foreign policy credentials  Polls show the American people have bought it.  So if you desperately want Obama to be re-elected you may give him a pass on this knowing  that down deep he really doesn't like it
 
 ''became disillusioned when he didn’t respond to the economic crisis with a New Deal-like works program: rebuild the infrastructure, raise the standard of living the average middle-class American, and pull the unemployed poor out of their poverty. ''
 
I am sorry but this is something that St. Franklin never did in all his tenure as our longest serving president in history.  The New Deal never worked and neither could the methods Obama and Democrats chose to implement since they never  delivered in the past so why expect it now.  It seems like Fr. Schroth thinks Obama could repeal the law of gravity as it implies to human nature.  God made the laws of gravity and He made a natural law for humans and miracles are not part of it in either case.  No body knows a quick fix to raise any group's standard of living or employ the poor but there sure are ways to move it in the wrong direction.
 
''What stands out beautifully is his insistence on the connection between religious belief and social justice.'' 
 
I will ask again.  What is social justice?  And if something hurts the poor no matter what it's intention, is that thing social justice.  The doctrine of social justice is at best. a murky one and has been criticized on religious grounds as diverting the Church from its true mission, which is the saving of souls. Providing for our fellow man is something every individual is obliged to do but the question is how and what determines when the help is successful.
 
''So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.”
 
Which political party criticizes the most the introduction of religion into politics?  Who has said that religion is taboo in the public place.?  Who has created a secular America.  We just had a religious holy day, Christmas, that is a national holiday and we are intimidated from saying ''Merry Christmas'' in public.  Why not have a discussion on this? 
 
''To Alex Mikulich, in the National Catholic Reporter, “this marks the defining moment of his presidency...a moral framework resonant with Catholic social teaching.”   Its three themes match Catholic social principles: 1) The economy ought to serve people, not profits. 2) labor must take priority over capital; and 3) property must serve the common good. His attack on the “trickle down” theory of economic justice is devastating. “It doesn’t work. It has never worked.” '' 
 
We could have a long discussion on whether Mr. Mikulich makes any sense at all.  But let's just say that in no way did Mr. Mikulich make any cogent argument about trickle down economics.  In fact he didn't even address it.  All he said was that not everyone would benefit from the lower taxes on the rich and in fact Obama misstated what happened as a result of the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 and Mr. Mikulich swallowed it.
 
There are tons of things to discuss in this OP but little will be put to any coherent scrutiny or  discussion.  Maybe the individual points should be the basis of ongoing OP's because they are not going away soon.
Matthew Pettigrew | 12/30/2011 - 5:56pm
Mr. Barbieri suggests that deciding for whom to vote in the presidential election next November is no more complicated than deciding whether or not the country is better off after four years of an Obama administration. That's certainly a factor, one that each of us must judge for himself or herself, but don't we also have to judge whether or not Mr. Obama's opponent would do a better job or a worse job than President Obama for the next four years?
T BLACKBURN | 12/30/2011 - 5:30pm
I've been watching this all day and biting my tongue. Fr. Schroth's comments on President Obama's rhetoric seems to have set off more standard partisan spouting than insight among the contributors. My contribution would be to note that, since Hubert Humphrey in 1968 (at least), Democtrats in trouble suddenly discover their inner populist. Only Bill Clinton managed to do it in time. Humphrey had an historical claim to having an inner populist. Obama? Not so much. Father, I think you are grasping at straws.
Andy Beigel | 12/30/2011 - 10:48am
A couple of quick comments - 
the cosnervative meme about sizeable democratic margins in both houses for three years - history says it was two years - second excluding Catholic Agencies - it was one,not multiple and they lost in a competition.

Next President Obama has not kept his promises - he tried he offered to cave into many republican/conservative desires and what did the reupubs do - they said no.  The Minority Leader of COngress made their desires clear - make Obama a one-term president - and the corrallary is if we need to destroy the contry to do that so be it.

Obama is not a vicrtim, but then again neither are conservatives or republicans.  I would also add that the constant victimhood of conservatives  grows tiring and speaks to a lack of serious ideas.  
Joshua DeCuir | 12/30/2011 - 10:42am
May I commend for a future "Readings" column the book profiled in this article that shows that, contrary to being a victim of a political system aligned against, the President has created and contributed to many of the problems we face.

http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/286704/repo-men-kevin-d-williamson?pg=1

He might then follow that up by taking a gander at "Reckless Endangerment," a book by New  York Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson profiling how the evil nexus of big government politics and high finance through the lens of Fannie & Freddie (and Congressional allies) contributed to the financial crisis.  It would lead one to conclude that unlike the tidy story of the "Good Barack-Bad Republicans" meme, the truth is actually more knotty.
Gabriel Marcella | 12/30/2011 - 10:07am
According to Amazon's blurb for Alterman's book  "...structural impediments to democracy have made the keeping of Obama's campaign promises all but impossible." This is at best a juvenile interpretation of of our political process, the US constitution, and the essence of democracy. Political scientists and constitutional scholars will have a field day ruminating over this, while the founding fathers would be pleased to find the checks and balances that they put in place are still working.
C Walter Mattingly | 12/30/2011 - 9:32am
Although misguided on a few issues, Fr Schroth's essay has resulted in some very interesting commentary. With a few tweaks, some clarity can emerge.
For example, for "the weaknessees of the American political system have ganged up on the president and made it difficult for him to deliver on the promises of his 2008 campaign," for "American political system," substitute "of key character deficiencies" and a truer perspective will emerge. In reality, one need look no further than his campaign promises to obtain this perspective. Obama supporters will recall, likely with pain, then-candidate Obama's posing as a reformer by refusing to take the private campaign contributions, restricting himself to public financing, refusing the attempt of union corporate monopolies and private corporations to "buy" the presidency and then demand their payoff. This of course lasted until he and his campaign were surprised to discover that they, rather than McCain, could garner the most bucks and "buy" the presidency for themselves. Accordingly, out the window went the reformer costume and into the treasury those big corrupting bucks. The reformer, unmasked, as poseur. Such posturing continues to the present.

There are multiple examples of such reversals and violations of commitments that confuse supporters and opponents alike, yet if one understands that the president, a political opportunist who was trained in the Chicago Daley machine school tradition, is perhaps sufficiently narcissistic to conclude that the greatest good of the country is his own reelection. When that is taken into account, his actions generally begin to make sense. Here is where I have the suspicion that Beth's preference for Hillary Clinton may be substantive. For example, President Obama was astute in realizing that he needed to establish a bipartisan commission to deal with the immense deficits that threatened the country. The Bowles-Simpson plan that resulted was a serious and substantive proposal that would over time truly ease the deficit and generate confidence in the economy here and abroad. It had the support of the center and important conservative and liberal voices such as Coburn and Durbin, but it was opposed by the extremes such as Schumer and Demint, the unions and the Tea Party. President Obama, fearing the loss of labor support because it addressed such problems as cadillac benefits and the unsustainable growth of medicare and medicaid, ducked the issue. Hillary, more principled, likely would have provided leadership and fought for it, even if it meant losing potential votes. It is the difference between integrity and opportunism.

The bottom line is twofold: ignore the pretty speeches the president reads over the teleprompter and attend to what he does, and, Fr Schroth, threaten his votes in the next election. Failing that, find another alternative for the office. (Assuming it is not Rick Perry or Michelle Bachman.) 
Amy Ho-Ohn | 12/30/2011 - 8:08am
"The letter has received no ink in The Pilot (Archdiocese of Boston) nor has anyone I know heard a word about these issues from the pulpit."

I am in Boston, and we hear about unemployment and poverty from the ambo essentially every Sunday. The last time I went to Reconciliation, the confessor even started kind of badgering me about how much I give to the poor.

Basilica of OLPH. (Mission Church) Orange Line to Roxbury Crossing. You'll see it as soon as you come up the stairs. Bring your checkbook. We have a school we're trying to keep open.
Beth Cioffoletti | 12/30/2011 - 6:09am
I agree with Crystal.  Obama's caving to the War Machine has been most disappointing.  But I think his efforts at rebuilding the economy have been thwarted by Republican obstructionism.  Hopefully he will gain some leverage there in his 2nd term.

I've been most impressed with Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State.  Perhaps she would have been a better choice than Obama, but it seems the presidency carries its own peculiar character challenges.  I'm not sure that "moral" is at the top of the list for those who seek, and can acheive, this office.  I'd be comfortable with a principled atheist more than one who spouts religious slogans for political gain.

I don't know what to make of Mary's accounting (#5) of the preists not preaching about unemployment and poverty, even at the direction of Bishop Dolan.  Why not?  This sounds like a story that should be looked into further.  Please keep at it, Mary.  Perhaps one of the America magazine writers could follow up. 
Crystal Watson | 12/29/2011 - 11:16pm
I'm one of the people who's been disappointed in Obama because he hasn't been liberal enough - his environmental policies, for instance - and I too cringe when he boasts about having OBL killed. 

Is there someone else who would make a better president?  I think Hillary Clinton would have been a better choice and I did vote for her in the primary.  I'll still vote for Obama agains though because the republican candidates are just awful. 

I'd disagree with you about something I think is pretty important ... you seem to assume that the only candidates for president who can be morally driven and who will impliment moral programs are those who are religious.  Atheists can and do have moral and ethical standards   and I'm sure an atheist could make as moral a president as a believer.  There was a recent post at the NYT philosophy blog that discusses this ... http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/good-minus-god/
Mary Sweeney | 12/29/2011 - 9:56pm
''Tell the diocesan papers to prints excerpts and the bishops and pastors to preach on it.'' Surely you jest.

On September 15th Archbishop Dolan wrote a letter from the USCCB to all the United States Bishops asking them and all those with pastoral leadership (priests/deacons/etc?) to preach on unemployment and poverty. The letter has received no ink in The Pilot (Archdiocese of Boston) nor has anyone I know heard a word about these issues from the pulpit. I have written twice to my pastor asking when this is going to happen and have received no reply.

Archbishop Dolan said he wanted feedback on their efforts - even included an e-mail address and a fax number. I wrote to him and told him there was nothing. No reply. I wrote on the USCCB Facebook page and suggested that if they wanted feedback as to what was happening they could create a Facebook question - ''Have you heard any sermons on poverty/unemployment?'' They have not done it. It has been 3 months.

You seriously think that a Diocesan newspaper is going to reprint segments of the President's addresses?
Joshua DeCuir | 12/29/2011 - 7:11pm
In further reflecting on this post, Father Schroth and his pals at the Nation Magazine may want to reflect on a few other facts before concluding that the "hidden" Obama was stymied by unreflexive political evil representing by the Republicans.  In the first years of his term, the President accomplished massive expansions of the federal government, primarily through passage of the ACA.  In response to the expansion of federal power (including the ACA which public polling shows continues to be deeply unpopular with conservative and independent Americans), the President's party lost control of the House.  Exit polls confirm that the President's party lost the House primarily because Independent voters - indeed the very same voters who elected the President only three years prior) turned against the liberal policies of the President's party and expressed frustration that the President and his party pursued a narrow political agenda rather than addressing the deepening economic troubles.  Indeed, a number of commentators on both the left and right urged the President to pass a stimulus bill that included most the proposals the President now urges because the President would have forced the Republicans to vote for a number of proposals that they support - such as an infrastructure bank.  But the President's party ignored that advice and passed a stimulus bill that was little more than a massive giveaway to every liberal interest group known to humankind.  These political mistakes - and not the innate evil of a party supposedly committed to nothing less than the personal and political destruction of the President - accounted for the stunning defeats the President suffered, and the increased power of the Republican Party.  Some of us - nay near half of the country- don't view the frustration of some of the President's policies as an unremitted evil, but as a principled opposition to misguided policies that will weaken our nation's economic standing even further.   Surely we can disagree on that, but we are not evil simply because we conclude differently.

I understand the anguish of dear Father Schroth and his pals at the Nation Magazine that more of their expansionist policies were not adopetd, but the fault lies not in some nefarious evil Republican party, but largely in the failure of the President (he of the golden tongue) and his allies to convince Americans - INDEPENDENT Americans- that his policies were needed, necessary and useful.  That truth may be hard to bear, but it is a reality that unless accounted for will only lead to further disillusionment for dear Father Schroth and his pals at the Nation Magazine.  In the meantime, the slow work of democracy goes on.
Joshua DeCuir | 12/29/2011 - 6:22pm
This is sheer political propaganda.  Obama as a victim of a political system gang?  Give me a break.

Note to Fr. Schroth: for the first 3 years of his term, the President enjoyed a sizeable Democratic majority in BOTH houses of Congress!  Any maybe you should check out some OTHER analysis of the President's speech in Kansas for how, while adequately describing the problems of inequality in this country, it fails to provide adequte solutions to that problem: hint, even taxing 100% of the income of "the rich" is inadequate to close the fiscal gaps that will hurt the poor in the coming years.

Oh, and I notice that while you make reference to a document from the Obama White House, you make no mention of the actions being taken to exclude Catholic agencies from the public square!

It'd be nice to see the other side at least get a fair say in some of these posts.

david power | 12/29/2011 - 5:46pm
C'mon Fr Schroth,

Surely you do not stop at this?.Bad republicans?.I am imagining you reading this out in Church and when Jesus finds weeds in the harvest you say "it was a republican who did this".
Why place your hopes in a politician?.Find a God.Any will do but Jesus is a good one.
You named a guy who thinks that late-term abortion is okay and you talked of catholic social teaching.Dissonance ......
Obama did not have a few bad days he is a politician.A good politician who has to defend the American people and is doing a great job of that.You shirked the question on your last blog like this so I will ask you again "What would you have done?".Leave your Ivory tower for a wet Friday and deal with reality like Obama has to.The Presidency comes with an Oval Office but no magic wand.Did nobody tell you?.You are a Catholic Priest and if you want to stand in judgement of politicians you should get in the ring.They generally do not tell you how to do your job so why do you feel the need to tell them how to do theirs?.The Gospel is more than just a guilttrip for you to lay on people who do not share your political beliefs.  You have the Good News of Jesus Christ to share with world and all you can get passionate about is Estate Tax?Something you will never have to pay in your life.Look for that reset button!!! 
T BLACKBURN | 1/2/2012 - 10:48am
Amy, I hate to drop this bad news on you, but Charlemagne slept a lot of places in which the roof leaked. With the furs and blankets he needed to cover himself with for winter warmth, he couldn't have freed his hands to text. And, bummer, outdoor plumbing.

I'm not saying we have to better than that. But why not, if we can?

And whatever role the New Deal played or didn't play in it, the American middle class improved its standard of living during the period. Remember, we are now only about 100 years away from a time when the standard work week was 6 or 6 1/2 days.
david power | 12/31/2011 - 1:20pm
Wow David!!!That was excellently put.
I remember reading a couple of times that Obama would be assasinated and it was always people who buy big into the martyr thing who wrote it.It is a manichaen thing prevalent in most western culture.
In 2008 I had an American friend who would constantly shake his head in disbelief in awe  at the latest "speech" by Obama.I was left scratching my head by it all.How did he have such an effect on people?I was never against the guy and think he is far more likeable and able than McCain but he was only making speeches.Was it just a case of mass projection?I felt very cynical in 2008.
Do people not understand that politics deals with reality?That even the best crafted speech in history will not bring a deficit down , that terrorists will still want to wipe New York city away no matter how eloquently Obama offers the olive branch?In 2008 I also spoke to a guy from New York who said that "Obama will not win" and I asked him why and he said that America was a racist country.He said to his wife "You and I will vote for him but we are not America" the self-congratulatory tone mixed with those words made me want to vomit.I told him that Obama was going to win and he replied that He was American and knew his country better than me.Maybe so but Obama won.There is a tendency for people to want to gain moral points through political posturing.People take on a really heroic self-image ."We are all generous with the chequebook of another" is a polite way of rendering a famous Italian proverb."Sono tutti frocci col culo del altro" .
Obama can win again but it will be a maturer vote that gets him there the next time.    
Amy Ho-Ohn | 12/30/2011 - 6:04pm
The country is divided in opinion. A large minority, if not a majority, do not like the agenda Obama's "progressive" (anti-capitalism) supporters are peddling. A large minority, if not a majority, do not like the Republicans' "conservative" (pro-plutocracy) agenda either.

In these conditions, everybody has to compromise. Blaming one's own candidate for compromising and accusing the other side of a lack of good will is exactly how to ensure the country will fall further into chaos. It may be a wonderful way to rally the base, it may sometimes win elections and it sure makes you feel self-righteous and smug. But it can't govern.

Frederick Douglas, Dorothy Day and MLK were not elected to govern anything. Speechifying is not governing. If Daniel Webster and John Calhoun, who considered each other evil incarnate, managed to work together, Obama can work with Eric Cantor.
John Barbieri | 12/29/2011 - 7:50pm
The notion that President Obama is a ''victim'' is absurd. If he is a ''victim,'' then he is a ''victim'' of his own incompetence in the conduct of his office.
If the nation is better off in November 2012 than it was in November 2008, then President Obama deserves re-election.
If the nation is worse off in November 2012 than it was in November 2008, then President Obama does not deserve re-election.
It is no more complicated than that.