Groundhog Day: Looking Back into the Future | WisCommunity

Groundhog Day: Looking Back into the Future

#181818; font-family: Verdana">The movie Groundhog Day was a gentle comedy in which the hero finally makes the right choices and gets the girl in a crowd-pleasing happy ending. But in 2008, Groundhog Day has become a national nightmare in which we, the heroes, may have only one chance to get it right. Each day we wake up hoping to find a leader who has the intelligence to understand how best to navigate our current crises and the discipline to hold a steady course through our economic perfect storm that is wracking Wisconsin and the rest of the nation. But again and again, rational deliberations are drowned out by voices that tell us to fear those who are not like us, because Joe Sixpack and all those hockey moms have what it takes to preserve the freedom and greatness that we inherited from our founding fathers: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison, just your ordinary kind of guys. On November fourth, the alarm clock will awaken us for what may be our last best shot at preserving Wisconsin&;s economy and making the twenty-first century an American century. After eight years of shooting ourselves in the foot, how can we avoid shooting ourselves in the head?

#181818; font-family: Verdana">I#181818; font-family: Verdana"> first knew Barack Obama as a bright, community-oriented, politically astute Illinois State Senator who represented my Chicago South Shore District. In 2000, I watched him torpedo his political career with an incredibly ill-conceived and poorly executed primary campaign against a popular Democratic encumbant. So I’m not at all caught up in the mystique of Barack Obama, the invincible political phenomenon.

#181818; font-family: Verdana">J#181818; font-family: Verdana">ust a few years later, I watched State Senator Obama launch an improbable campaign for the U.S. Senate. This was my supreme moment of political unbelief.  This was Groundhog Day. This was “déjà vu, all over again.” Only the hero proved that he was an exceptionally rapid learner. Instead of a feature film, Groundhog Day became a short study in which Barack Obama ran a text-book perfect campaign to capture 52% of the vote in a strong, seven-candidate field.

#181818; font-family: Verdana">So even before the keynote speech that rocked the 2004 Democratic Convention, I suspected that State Senator Obama had the drive, intellect, discipline, and talent to become President Obama. And that made me very nervous. Not nervous like “is this guy going to mug me?” No, nervous like discovering that you’re about to play the last day of the Masters Tournament paired with Tiger Woods.

#181818; font-family: Verdana">When Obama decided to run in 2008 and made it clear that he intended to win, I took him at his word. When he matched the vaunted Clinton fund-raising machine in the first quarter of 2007, I had no idea how he had done it, but I was not surprised.

#181818; font-family: Verdana">What did surprise me was how superb an executive this academician and community organizer turned out to be. His selection of a management team was right-on-the-money, which was obvious close-up during the first months of the campaign and became apparent to everyone as the campaign progressed. He established not only a clear mission but also an organizational culture (i.e., respect, empower, include), which has been embraced by a rapidly growing corps of staff and volunteers. As President of a small consulting firm, I am proud of how, after two decades in business, my associates’ work reflects my values. In less than a year, Barack Obama achieved this in a national organization hundreds of times larger than my firm.

#181818; font-family: Verdana">And in health care, a field in which I have a decade of post-graduate training and three decades of experience, Obama’s first cut at a health care reform package continues to hold up against attacks from the right and from the left. When I first read the plan, I thought it was reasonable but was skeptical about some of its elements. But as the campaign evolved, I have come to realize that Obama and his inner core of advisors simply saw further ahead than I did. Obama’s proposals were designed not only to win the Iowa caucuses, or the Democratic nomination, or the Presidential election. Obama’s proposals were designed to position him to lead our nation.

#181818; font-family: Verdana">Although I grew up in the South Bronx, I don&;t think someone who taught medicine at Harvard can pass as Joe Sixpack. And though my wife’s life often revolved around my son’s baseball and my daughter’s soccer, I can’t quite picture her as a hockey mom, whatever that may be. Both of us are quite satisfied with our accomplishments, and our 30-something children and their spouses are a source of great joy. But we are not in the same league as Barack and Michelle Obama.  And frankly, we don’t have to be, because we make no pretenses about being qualified to be President and First Lady of the greatest nation on earth.

#181818; font-family: Verdana">I don’t know John McCain as well as I have come to know Barack Obama.  Perhaps this is because I’ve never been represented by Senator McCain. Or perhaps it’s because John McCain doesn’t know himself as well as Barack Obama knows himself.

#181818; font-family: Verdana">I believe John McCain is a genuine maverick who, as Sarah Palin has observed, is trying to create a team of mavericks. Perhaps great political leaders can create teams of rivals, but teams of mavericks are contradictions in terms. John McCain’s greatest success to date in his Presidential campaign came when he fired the staff that had bankrupted his organization and continued his quest virtually alone. As a Senator, his finest hours may have been when he broke with his party to help secure some important legislation. As No Drama Obama makes small tactical adjustments in his carefully crafted strategy, McCain’s Straight Talk Express bounds from one dramatic move to the next surprising contradiction. It’s like watching the Perils of Pauline and hoping the heroine gets off the tracks before being run over by the train.

#181818; font-family: Verdana">So in health care reform, budget neutral tax credits become new taxes on the employees’ health benefits which then become big cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. And a bailout (or rescue) plan designed to purchase undervalued securities from banks becomes a plan to have banks write-down mortgages that then will be sold to federal government which then becomes a plan in which federal taxpayers write-down these mortgages so banks can walk away from the bad loans they made without suffering any loss.  And plans to campaign on the high road of issues becomes a flurry of incendiary attacks on Senator Obama which then becomes an attempt to tamp down the vitriol these attacks have engendered. Wisconsin needs a President who will address pressing issues of economic security and not become fixated on a defanged 1960s radical or an unfunded projector to display the heavens across the dome of the Adler Planetarium.

#181818; font-family: Verdana">Barack Obama has characterized John McCain’s behavior as erratic, which some see as an unfair personal attack. But an alternative interpretation is that Obama and McCain really agree. Mavericks are by their very nature erratic and unpredictable.  This characteristic can be very valuable in corporate decision making when ideologues attempt to solve new problems with inappropriate, outmoded solutions. But mavericks are notoriously poor executive leaders. For them, Groundhog Day is a constantly repeating series of experiments that may win some important battles, but that never seem to win the war.

#181818; font-family: Verdana">Executive leadership requires an ability to identify, select, and harness the best talent available. It requires the ability to think many steps ahead and to see around corners. It requires an ability to distinguish between long-term strategies and short-term tactics. It requires the ability to distinguish essential investments (e.g., infrastructure, energy independence, health care education) that must be made even if one must borrow to make them from worthwhile expenses that can wait until money is available. It requires a progressive hopeful vision combined with a conservative political temperament.

#181818; font-family: Verdana">When Charles Krauthammer writes something even remotely complimentary about a Senator he believes is far to the left of left, it’s worthy of serious examination. So Krauthammer’s crediting “Cool Barry” with “both a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament,” in a recent <a href=">http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/02/AR200810...#181818; font-family: Verdana">>syndicated column</a> sends a clear signal that Obama may be a very special kind of candidate.</p> <p>#181818; font-family: Verdana">In fairness to Senator McCain, few of us have either first-class intellects or first-class political temperaments. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson certainly had first-class intellects but their political temperaments were seriously flawed. George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt had first-class political temperaments, but serious questions have been raised about their intellectual acumen. Abraham Lincoln, though often criticized during his lifetime as ignorant and indecisive, had both. So maybe Obama’s beginning his improbable journey to the White House in Springfield, Illinois, though audacious, was really as insightful as it was symbolic.

#181818; font-family: Verdana">As in the past two presidential elections, Wisconsin will be a crucial battleground state.  So this year, ready or not, Groundhog Day in November is right around the corner, and you will have one more chance to choose whether to embrace the future or retreat into the past.

Published

October 12, 2008 - 7:40pm
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