Follow the Leader

Article excerpt

Byline: Anna Quindlen

We elected him to do the right thing--not take dictation.

By the time the current political cycle is over, the term "populist" will have become a buzzword so misused and abused that it will be leached of all real meaning. The dictionary definitions refer to the agrarian political party of the late 19th century, then segue into the use of the term that modern politicians have learned to embrace: "a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people."

But what those people might be trying to say is not always clear. The explanations for the current "populist rage" are almost as various as those legendary blind men feeling different parts of an elephant: big government, big banks, unemployment, and a health-care plan that went (choose one) too far, too fast, not far enough, not fast enough. In fact, the Senate election results in Massachusetts, in which a Republican seized the seat held by Ted Kennedy for almost half a century and threw the Democratic Party into a monumental tizzy, was a classic toss-the-bums-out event, neither specific nor illuminating.

So at the moment the problem in Washington is us, not them, or at least how they try to figure us out. Good luck with that. One poll of former Obama supporters who abandoned the Democrats in Massachusetts showed that 41 percent of those who opposed the health-care plan weren't sure exactly why. If elected officials are supposed to act based on the wisdom of ordinary people, they're going to need ordinary people to be wiser than that.

Social issues are easy: you're either for or against the death penalty, abortion, gay marriage. Economics are complex. Over and over again some Americans say they want lower taxes and smaller government. Yet somehow, in a recurrent bit of magical thinking, they also expect those things that taxes are used to pay for and that government delivers. The result is contradictory: vote down the school-board budget, then complain that Johnny can't read.

Another political buzzword, "productivity," has come to stand for the proposition that you can always do more with less. There's little evidence that that's accurate. And it's hard to believe that even the most zealous tea-party types would shrug philosophically if a bunch of kids died of E. coli because we hadn't hired enough food inspectors. The old dictum stands: you get what you pay for.

And, more important, you get what you won't pay for. There's no question that this is a moment in which the United States is poised for one future or another--the end of the American century or a new era of dominance based not on military might but on innovation. A global economy, a technological revolution, an ecosystem in crisis, radically changing demographics: these are matters that are inextricably linked and that require the long view. When Barack Obama ran on a platform of change, it was not a pledge to tinker day by day, but to transform over time. Chess, not pinball.

If his party's recent reversal of fortune has given the president a jolt that leads him to refocus on the suffering of ordinary people who have lost their jobs and homes, that would be a good thing. But if his administration and Congress expend their energy on knee-jerk reactions to perceived or imagined public sentiment, that will be terrible. …