Column: Please, President Obama, Not Another ‘National Conversation’
President Barack Obama speaks to media as he meets with representatives from Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs Association in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, in Washington, to discuss policies put forward by President Obama to reduce gun violence. From left are Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau, Hennepin County Minnesota Sheriff Richard W. Stanek, President Obama, and Charles H. Ramsey Police Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Drug czar William Bennett gestures while addressing a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington Wednesday, Sept. 6, 1989 where he discussed President Bush's $7.9 billion drug program. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
It’s getting pretty noisy in here with all these national conversations.
There’s the national conversation on gun violence. And the one on immigration. And income inequality. And marriage equality. And debt. And climate change. And obesity. And bullying. And, of course, race.
After a while, it’s hard to know whose turn it is to talk, what everyone is saying or which conversations really matter — especially because they’re all “long overdue.”
Politicians love calling for national conversations, but without a doubt, President Obama is our national conversationalist in chief. He has launched or identified conversations on issues great and small and considers them vital to our democracy.
And you better get ready for plenty more of them. Speaking last month with the New Republic, Obama affirmed that, in his second term, he and his White House team will be “spending a lot more time in terms of being in a conversation with the American people as opposed to just playing an insider game here in Washington.”
But are these national conversations really conversations? Or is the term a political ploy, a kindly euphemism for our bitter divides? Or, in Obama’s case, is a national conversation a fail-safe when face-to-face conversations fall short?
I hate to say it, but it might be time for a national conversation — about our national conversations.
It’s long overdue.
He wasn’t the first person to speak of “national conversations” in the popular press, but if anyone is responsible for popularizing the term, it is former education secretary, onetime drug czar and all-purpose conservative scold Bill Bennett.
Since his days in the Reagan administration, Bennett has constantly called for national conversations — on the place of religion in American life, on the proper relationship between the government and the people, on foreign policy, and much more. When he dropped his bid for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination, he pledged to remain engaged in the national conversation on “the cultural and social condition of modern America.” (He’s still at it: Last month he wrote an essay outlining a “national conversation about poverty.”)
But like many others who have called for national conversations, Bennett always seems to have clear conclusions in mind, whether limited government or the defeat of secularism. And that is precisely what renders such conversations largely non-conversational.
A true conversation “doesn’t have a goal; it’s spontaneous,” says Daniel Menaker, the author of A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation. It’s about “making a human connection . . . you walk away feeling better.”
Our alleged national conversations don’t fit the bill, Menaker contends. “Better just to call them what they are — a discussion, a debate, even an argument.”
Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank has suggested that politically inspired national conversations are unavoidable in a talk-therapy age. And certainly, when a politician calls for a national conversation on reproductive health, it’s more inviting than saying, “Hey, let’s fight about birth control!” But fiercely held and mutually exclusive opinions won’t magically disappear if we frame them as a feel-good conversation.
Just recall the town hall meetings surrounding Obama’s health-care legislation in 2009. The notion of a town hall (so Athenian!) has become an indispensable element of our conversational stagecraft: citizens gathering in a public square to discuss important issues and engage their political leaders in the timeless tradition of democratic societies.
Except that unhappy Americans showed up packing heat, America’s first black president was depicted as a Nazi, and the truth got a little muddled in translation. Not very conversational.
Virulence is not the only problem. Many political pleas for national conversations are too vague or self-serving to propel real dialogue. Think of Al Gore declaring in 1992 that he was joining the Democratic presidential ticket to help “make this campaign a national conversation about America’s future.”
Or Hillary Rodham Clinton launching her 2008 campaign by promising that “I’m not just starting a campaign . . . I’m beginning a conversation — with you, with America.”
Or Newt Gingrich, who last year called for “a national conversation among Republicans . . . over who can beat Barack Obama.” (Was Newt really open to discussion on that one?)
Even for presidents, the national conversation is hard to channel, and not just in the hashtag age. In the summer of 1997, President Bill Clinton declared that, “over the coming year, I want to lead the American people in a great and unprecedented conversation about race.” The following year, Americans were indeed gripped by a national conversation, with Clinton at the center of it. Except it was about a White House intern, impeachment proceedings and the meaning of “is.”
In Obama’s telling, the national conversation is not just what we do — it is who we are. Long before he took the presidential oath, Obama displayed a genuine belief in the power of national dialogue.
In the preface to his memoir Dreams From My Father, Obama reminisces about working as a state senator in Springfield, Ill.: “Within the capitol building of a big, industrial state, one sees every day the face of a nation in constant conversation: inner-city mothers and corn and bean farmers, immigrant day laborers alongside suburban investment bankers — all jostling to be heard, all ready to tell their stories.” And in the book’s epilogue, he invokes a similar dialogue as a way to understand his chosen profession: “The law records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience.”
In 2006’s The Audacity of Hope, Obama hails the Constitution “not just as a source of individual rights, but also as a means of organizing a democratic conversation around our collective future.” He even defines our democracy “not as a house to be built, but as a conversation to be had.”
From his college days, Obama was imbued with the concept of “deliberative democracy,” explains Harvard University historian James Kloppenberg, the author of a book on Obama’s intellectual development. This is the notion that politics is “not just the registering of brute individual interests and tallying of the votes, but discourse, conversation, deliberation,” he says. “Individual interests are not a given but something to be developed in dialogue with other participants in your democracy.”
Obama’s zeal for conversation “is at the heart of why he’s been so controversial to people on the right and the left,” Kloppenberg contends. “They want him to be one thing or another thing; they just don’t share this vision of democracy as a conversation. But that’s who he is. That’s not going to change.”
The Obama administration has tried to start national conversations on all manner of subjects: a National Conversation on the Importance of Fatherhood and Personal Responsibility, a National Conversation on the Future of America’s Cities and Metropolitan Areas, even a Conversacion Nacional Sobre la Ensenanza del Ingles (That’s a national conversation on the teaching of English).
The formula can feel familiar: a gathering of diverse notables, a tour of community nonprofits, a town hall or maybe a speech. Conversation launched!
Meanwhile, Obama’s Twitter feed, with its 26 million followers, is just one part of a White House digital operation aimed at influencing the conversation. Consider the White House’s online petition effort, which recently featured a discussion about whether the United States should build a Death Star; or its “fireside hangouts,” including one with Vice President Joe Biden focused on gun violence. (“The single best thing we can do is have a national dialogue about this,” Biden affirmed.)
Long before Obama’s Las Vegas speech on immigration reform, the White House website even offered a “toolkit” with instructions for users on how to hold a roundtable on the issue in their communities:
“You may consider inviting participants from diverse sectors. . . . Have everyone sign-in. . . . Ask the group to work together to educate your community and its leaders about what is needed to fix our broken immigration system. . . . Return the completed toolkit to us. . . . Continue the national conversation on this issue!”
Responsible fathers? Sustainable cities? English skills? Death Stars? It’s harder to imagine the White House providing handy instructions for people to start community conversations on, say, the legality of drone strikes — even though that might be a conversation worth having.
On the tougher questions, the national conversation is tougher to harness.
“Already, we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun-safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system,” Obama said in January 2011, after an Arizona gunman killed six people and put a 9mm bullet through then-Rep. Gabby Giffords’ head.
The president echoed the theme in December after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. “The question is,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press, “are we going to be able to have a national conversation and move something through Congress?”
But only after Newtown did Obama move from conversation to action, putting Biden in charge of a task force on gun violence and laying out specific proposals. Was the attempted assassination of a sitting member of Congress not enough of a conversation starter?
In Obama’s case, one of the biggest conversations under way is one he seems to studiously avoid. Remember how this presidency was supposed to usher in a national dialogue on race? And while there have been countless books, essays, cable-news smackdowns and think-tank panels, Obama himself has engaged this conversation episodically, frustrating those who hoped he’d tackle race head-on. The president has weighed in at heavily charged moments — his 2008 campaign speech in Philadelphia, the beer summit, his poignant remarks on Trayvon Martin’s shooting — but has seemed reluctant to go further.
That might be a better approach, anyway, less ambitious but more realistic. Often, when Washington seeks to drive a national conversation, we get the illusion of conversation instead. We get commission reports that are lionized, then ignored (see Simpson-Bowles). We get high drama (see Wayne LaPierre vs. Mark Kelly). We get downloadable toolkits and prescreened town halls.
Ultimately, Obama’s calls for national conversations, while resonating with his high-minded interpretation of American democracy, also reflect the failure of one critical conversation he has pledged to fix: the gridlocked conversation in Washington.
“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America!” he thundered at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Four years later, Obama pledged to get us away from politics as usual. “We need to get beyond the old ideological debates and divides between left and right,” he urged just days before the vote. He called for a “new politics — a politics that calls on our better angels instead of encouraging our worst instincts.”
Yet, whether because of Obama or despite his best efforts, Washington remains divided, and the nation does, too. Polls show that our partisan gulf is greater than ever, and even the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat in Congress have little in common. The president’s signature health-care law did not flow from a conversation that brought people together; it passed without a single GOP vote. And Obama himself seems torn between trying to fix the conversation in the capital or going over his opponents’ heads and speaking directly with the country.
Are we just not capable of having real conversations anymore? I’m sure you’ve heard: Just like we were “bowling alone” in the 1990s, untethered to the groups that once defined us, now we’re “alone together,” our gadgets linking us only to the like-minded or the ephemeral. So we’re too distant, or too distracted, to take seriously political calls for national conversations.
But consider who has launched the true national conversations over the past five years. It hasn’t been politicians; they’re usually playing catch up. For better or worse, it’s been Adam Lanza and George Zimmerman. It’s been the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Sgt. James Crowley and professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. It’s been the original Tea Party protesters and the people in Zuccotti Park. It’s been Junior Seau. And Sandra Fluke. And Hurricane Sandy.
It’s even been part-time high school football referee Lance Easley, who on Sept. 24 thrust his arms in the air and signaled a Seattle Seahawks touchdown — outraging a sports-crazed nation and forcing the NFL to negotiate a new contract with its regular referees three days later.
Now that had the nation talking.
Carlos Lozada is editor of the Outlook section of The Washington Post.