(This essay was commissioned by and first appeared in The Huffington Post.)
Arianna Huffington asked me (and a sizeable gaggle of her other pals) to write something up for Thanksgiving. What am I thankful for? What moves me on Thanksgiving?
My significant other lets me know regularly how lucky we are to have our health, a couple of nice homes, jobs that pay reasonably well, friends and dogs who love us, family that we seem closer to each year, and causes that we are passionate about.
But he tells me this because I’m not often thinking about how great or not things are close to home. I know that there are many on the jobless rolls right now – and I think about them a lot. I know there are folks losing their homes and it really frustrates me to read in contrast about Wall Street’s recent huge rebound. I know there are lonely people – with no connections to their communities, families, and without friends. I know a lot of sick people with marginal or no health care.
I can’t stop thinking about these down trends from the American good life – and I worry about the macro challenges facing the country, our political system, and our new and fascinating President.
I am grateful that we have Barack Obama in the White House – because he has changed the face of the nation – and altered forever the horizon of what is possible for Americans who don’t have the Anglo-Saxon cosmetic veneer that every US President before Barack Obama possessed.
I also am grateful for Obama’s invitation for debate and fair-minded criticism. His decision to bring in policy practitioners who have divergent views from one another, his embrace of heterodoxy, and the manner in which these conflicts come right up to his desk reflect a profound self-confidence in our young President.
Obama’s embrace of debate and political diversity can be both strength and weakness – but in the long run, it’s better to have debate than not in a time when the world is at a major punctuation point in history and when things tomorrow will be quite different than they were yesterday.
There are many things I’m not happy about.
I’m not happy about the policy choices of Obama’s economic team that have produced a Wall street bailout while banks still dither in their loans and small businesses still find an economic noose around their necks as they try to secure financing. I don’t like how the administration has underperformed on job creation. I’m not happy that the tens of thousands of gay and lesbian soldiers in the Armed Forces and National Reserve still have to live a lie as they put themselves on the line for the security and welfare of all Americans of every brand and stripe. The failure of the administration to secure a strategic leap out of the mess the Bush administration left in the Middle East and with Iran, Israel/Palestine, and Afghanistan is very worrisome.
But what a change in a few years.
It’s “safe” again to pose uncomfortable questions to the President of the United States and his team. It is actually “patriotic”. Barack Obama embraces this patriotism of those who challenge him and dissent from his core policy positions and decisions. This is a stunning difference with the political world America has left behind.
Former Senator Chuck Hagel, who has become the co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and who was awarded two Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam, is someone who during the George W. Bush administration had his patriotism questioned. Vice President Cheney blasted Hagel for asking key questions about the solvency of thinking about the Iraq War and challenged his loyalty to President Bush, the Republican Party, and the nation.
This was outrageous – and indicated how deeply a climate of fear and vindictiveness had taken hold in and poisoned Washington as legislators on all sides of an issue fought over the course of public policy.
That is over. There are ferocious debates today over health care, climate change, education policy, the budget and America’s long term fiscal position, over Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Iran, China, and economic policy.
But these debates are raging in a climate in which it is OK and safe to engage in civil debate.
In the Bush years, the efforts at thought control were so severe that spear-carriers like Tom DeLay sought to get those of a different political make-up fired from private sector jobs. Former Oklahoma Congressman Dave McCurdy, now head of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, was one of DeLay’s targets. Funders cut off think tanks that opposed the Iraq War. Hate mail campaigns were launched against those who expressed views independent of the Bush/Cheney machine.
I have a lot of criticism that I direct at the Obama White House – but I try to be civil and fair-minded, inspired by the President and how his team mostly operates (the Greg Craig situation being a major and disappointing exception).
But this White House embraces differences, rivals, and debate. This is extraordinarily important, and of all things this Thanksgiving – I’m thankful that challenging the government’s course and trying to put better ideas on the table are unabashedly patriotic again.
Have a good, old fashioned policy debate with someone you don’t necessarily see eye to eye with this weekend — and feel good about it. Shake hands when it’s over, and agree to disagree if things end up that way.
That is what we have back again — and that’s something to celebrate.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
— Steve Clemons