Politico, the daily newspaper and online service, ran this headline today and with it an article that outlined how Obama operatives are getting ready to destroy Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s character in the hopes of maintaining The White House. But is this the right path for any candidate to take, especially one that ran on “hope?” In traveling the country, I have heard Obama partisans talk about how he must do anything to win re-election in 2012. Part of their reasoning is that if Republicans prevail they will dismantle government, a fear only exacerbated by the recent debt crisis. What’s more, I am told, Obama must respond to a likely Republican onslaught by fighting fire with fire.
And so, today’s article reports, “Obama’s high command has even studied President Bush’s 2004 takedown of Sen. John F. Kerry… for clues on how a president with middling approval ratings can defeat a challenger.”
But this is exactly the wrong course for Obama, and all other candidates. It is the wrong course for the country.
For this path assuredly will only deepen people’s disgust with politics and public life, and their belief that we cannot get things done in the country. It suggests that people will respond only to trash talk and negative campaigning. And it ignores the basic fact that people hold genuine aspirations for their lives and communities that they want to act on and make real.
In interviewing people for our new Main Street study*, I am struck by people’s yearning to re-engage and re-connect with one another. They know that in these topsy-turvy times they cannot go it alone. They want to find a way to restore their belief that as individuals, and collectively, we have the ability to get things done.
So, before Obama and his Republican opponents embrace the strategy of destruction, they should take a long hard look in the mirror and ask themselves a basic human question: “What do people fundamentally want in their lives, in public life, and from one another?”
I would ask each of us to do the same.
For going down the path of destruction may help to take down an opponent, but it will never serve to build up a community or the country. On this path, we may demonize and push each other into a corner, but we will never figure out our shared beliefs and work to improve people’s lives.
Let me be clear: I am not arguing for anyone to capitulate or be passive in today’s public square. Rather, I am calling for real leadership, in which, for now, we find even small ways to get this country moving on a better trajectory. In this regard, Washington, D.C. and our state capitals may be the last place where such positive movement occurs. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us must sit idly by and watch – and wait. Each of us can step forward now, turn toward one another, and start to demonstrate what is possible.
Maybe, then, our presidential candidates will see what we really want from them. And maybe then we will all feel like we’re moving the country in a better direction.
*Main Street is a national study we are undertaking to inform a new "public life" report with the support of the Kettering Foundation called Citizens and Politics II slated to be published later this year. You can read Citizens and Politics I here.