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What Obama Should Learn From Lenin

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Thirty-eight years ago a film called The Candidate was playing in theaters around the country. It told the story of a young politician named Bill McKay (played by Robert Redford) and his quixotic campaign to win a seat in the United States Senate from California. That, of course, was the year of George McGovern’s run for the presidency against President Richard Nixon. It was also the first year 18-year old Americans could vote. So the movie tapped into the whole young-rock-star-charisma-change-the-world zeitgeist.

It was a “Yes, we can” political prologue.

In the final scene of the movie, McKay and his campaign manager, Marvin Lucas (played by the late Peter Boyle), enter a small room. It is election night and they have emerged victorious, surprising everybody—especially themselves. You can hear the noise of celebration piercing the walls as the candidate and his mentor take a moment to process it all. Then Bill McKay asks:

“Marvin…what do we do now?”

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo has said: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Running for office and effectively managing the office once elected are two very different things. What we are witnessing these days is verification that some poets have a hard time with prose. They tend to spend way too much time trying to make the words rhyme rather than solving problems.

While the country was being “community organized” a couple of years ago, with passionate people intuitively tapping into the various national frustrations, many who were caught up in that surreal moment didn’t ask tough questions. In fact, some didn’t ask any at all. It was all about hope and change and a new day and what not.

Now, as we move toward another national election in two months, many who loved the poetry have been disillusioned by what has passed for governing prose. The man who campaigned against laissez faire economics has repeatedly demonstrated laissez faire leadership. When inconvenient problems (and aren’t they all?) come along, the predictable pattern has been to make a speech or two, drop a few expert names, point a finger, and then move on.

During the 2008 campaign, and when the economy started unraveling, Senator John McCain famously “suspended” his campaign to head back to Washington. Sure, it was pure political theater—but Barack Obama seized on it with dismissive derision and suggested that he (unlike his aged opponent) was able to multi-task and could manage several issues at the same time. Well, he certainly could talk about several things at the same time, but when it comes to working with and through actual real problems, it’s a vastly different story. Where is this legendary multi-tasking expertise now that the theoretical has morphed into the actual?

It is said that, “Motivation without implementation produces frustration.” And it is becoming very clear that some who were highly motivated two years ago are now extremely frustrated.

What we have in America right now is leadership by those who have little or no experience in running anything other than a chronic campaign. Men and women who have spent a generation with one goal in mind—to seize the reins of power—have done so only to play out the last scene of that 1972 movie writ large. They simply haven’t a clue as to what they’re doing. And beyond that, they are not even willing, as was Franklin Roosevelt, to explore “bold experimentation” to fix things (and this is something for which we all should be very thankful).

“Marvin…what do we do now?”

While I certainly have no way of knowing just how decisive the repudiation of Obamaism will be during the mid-term elections this November, I believe the message will be unambiguous. I also have no doubt that Nancy Pelosi will be completely flabbergasted and assume that the numbers are wrong or that some conspiracy is involved. But most Americans will see it for what it is—a big “No, we won’t” from the body politic. And some of those voting the rascals out will be reversing their choices from 24 months earlier.

Paradigm meets pendulum.

Wednesday, November 3rd, will be the most important day in Barack Obama’s presidency. He’ll have some vital decisions to make in light of the results from the night before. He’ll need to work through the various stages of grief quickly—especially the anger and denial phases. But will he learn anything from what is happening now?

And what will we learn about him?

Will he double down and dig in his heels, Woodrow Wilson-like? Or will he read the political tea leaves with wisdom and humility and adjust to the new reality? Having actually let crisis after crisis go to waste—at our peril and expense—will President Obama seize the moment in his own political crisis and move toward the center?

Even Lenin did that.

The year was 1921, and the Bolsheviks had been in power in Russia since the autumn of 1917. They had applied the doctrines of Marx, as spun by Lenin, and as a result the nation was on the verge of economic collapse. So what did the dictator do? He announced a New Economic Policy (NEP) and brought back elements of that evil market economy—even capitalism. Why? Because it works.

What is to be done?

By the time Lenin died in 1924, his nation was well into an economic recovery. Though there were still socialist programs in place for things like collective farms, more than 98% of the agricultural output of the nation came from individually owned farms. And 75% of all retail trade was in private hands.

Of course, Lenin had not had a change of heart. He was still a communist, but admitted, “we retreat…so as to spring forward.” Historians to this day argue about what would have happened had he lived and Stalin hadn’t gotten his grubby hands on things. But I think there can be little doubt that Lenin was just buying time and would have returned to his radical socialism as a dog to its vomit. But he didn’t have to face the voters every so often—or actually, ever.

Yes, even the king of the socialist/Marxist/communists, Lenin himself had to recognize that when push comes to shove freeing up the market some and letting people have more control over their stuff is good for any economy. Duh.

So—please Mr. President, if you don’t have the stomach to move to the center because of the Republicans after your upcoming bad night in November, can you at least do it for Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov?

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