Mark Shields: Memo to Obama, appreciating the stakes involved

By Mark Shields

To President Obama: The late John Gardner, a wise and patriotic American who, as cabinet secretary, successfully launched Medicare, oversaw the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and who, after resigning because of his disagreement with President Johnson’s war policy in Vietnam, founded Common Cause told us: “The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” Gardner also cautioned: “Pity the leader caught between unloving critics and uncritical lovers.”

You, Mr. President, have more than your share of both. First, the unloving critics of which so many of whom have individually and collectively prospered from the more than doubling of the Dow Jones averages during your presidency and yet refuse to give your policies any credit. Instead, they blame you personally for any recent outbreak of ringworm in Kankakee. Your partisan political opposition is as irrational as it is intransigent. But your uncritical lovers who attribute even the most thoughtful questioning of your policy or personnel choices to either invincible racism or ideological intransigence do no favors to you or to the public debate.

Mr. President, more than your presidency hangs in the balance. To be blunt, Americans who, in poll after poll, had overwhelmingly stipulated your obvious intelligence and your personal integrity now have been given — by you and your actions — reason to doubt both. Your fellow citizens are left with two unwelcome options: Either you did not know that you were misleading the nation when you told us “you will be able to keep your health plan,” which would constitute terminal lack of curiosity on your part, or you did know and chose to trade your invaluable asset of public integrity for short-term political advantage.

The Democratic Party, which has twice bestowed upon you the highest gift it has, the honor of being its presidential nominee, has long been the home for Americans who believe that government can be and has been an engine for economic progress and the instrument for social justice. Republicans have argued that government is not the answer but instead the problem, which through vexing regulation and onerous taxes prevents the vaunted private sector from solving the nation’s problems.

Your own broken promises and your administration’s non-performance on health care have sabotaged the nation’s already-depleted confidence in the effectiveness of government and the value of the public sector. A temporary fix is not the solution. You must demand and you must deliver professional competence and complete transparency. If the Affordable Care Act is ultimately judged to be a failure, then American liberalism — defined by the belief that we, citizens, are capable of acting collectively through government to improve our country and make our society more just — will be disabled if not discredited. Democratic dreams about 2016, let alone 2014, will have been dealt a body blow.

You spent large chunks of your life in New York and Chicago, Mr. President, so you will understand this homely analogy. The nation’s citizens, as of this writing, can best be compared to the passengers on a subway car that has just — with a terrifying jolt — come to an abrupt, unscheduled stop somewhere in the pitch black tunnel between stations. The air is limited. The nervousness and fear of the passengers are real. What those passengers –we — now desperately need is to hear a confident, authoritative voice tell us clearly what went wrong, what is being done to make things right, what we should do to help, and when we can realistically expect to be back on the right track again. That is your job, Mr. President. Only you can do it.

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