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Archive for May, 2012

On the same day last week that we learned about an Arizona high school baseball quitting a championship game because there was a woman on the opposing team, President Obama delivered a commencement address to the graduating class at Columbia’s Barnard College that could have served as a pep talk to the walk-off team. Make no mistake: This is part of a theme that’s shaping up around social issues including women’s and minority rights.

“After decades of slow, steady, extraordinary progress, you are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation,” Obama told the graduating class. “Never underestimate the power of your example.”

Paige Sulzbach, Second Base, Mesa Prep, is one of those examples. As it happens, my sister was one of those examples too — the first woman to play on her high school baseball team. (That’s her on the left, in the photo below.) She told me she wouldn’t have done anything differently than Paige. “She proved herself a competitor, the same as any other,” my sister said, reiterating homage for the game she still calls “chess on grass,” our national pastime.

It’s unfortunate when examples are met with prejudice. But the chess metaphor also applies to politics.

The President should reach out to Sulzbach, as he reached out to Sandra Fluke, the woman recently berated for speaking out about reproductive rights. The contexts are different but the impact is the same. Radical conservatives stand in the path of social equality. The President spoke out against bigotry last week regarding marriage and sexual orientation; he spoke out last Monday against sexism in general.  He spoke to the progress of equality over past decades and also under his presidential watch: Just as a woman should be paid equally for their work, she should be able to qualify for fielding second base. On the boy’s team. If she chooses.

It doesn’t matter if  you feel the GOP’s efforts amount to a “war” in their initiatives on contraception, Planned Parenthood, or responses to extremist talkers like Rush Limbaugh, who called Ms. Fluke a “slut” for suggesting a woman’s had the right to control her own body. What matters is that some of us still don’t look at each other equally. Men can only imagine what women who choose to play on the boys’ team get called. I’m sure my sister caught some of it.

“Paige and her teammates have all had a valuable experience that will serve them well both on and off the field and for years to come,” my sister said. It would serve us all well.

“Until a girl can…picture herself as a computer programmer, or a combatant commander, she won’t become one,” the President said Monday. Add playing baseball to that list. “Persevere,” the President advised the graduates.

Let’s hope the team that walked off the field in Arizona will also try to persevere, overcome their biases. It would make us all a stronger team.

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My op-ed in today’s Raleigh News & Observer looks at Obama’s reaction to the anti-marriage equality vote in North Carolina, and how he seized the rhetorical moment.

Here is the ABC interview that made the news:

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Over the last week the President is making it clear he’s going to go after Mitt Romney’s elite social status as a campaign issue, a gambit that could pay off if played right. We heard it yesterday at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where Obama milked a joke about how Mitt would view the spacious DuPont Hilton ballroom as a “fixer-upper.”

Earlier in the past week the President made a conscious issue out of Republican opposition to renewing the student loan interest rate, framing the debate as a specific attack on Romney, who never needed a loan. Obama did so to great fanfare in a speeches before college audiences in Iowa and North Carolina, both key battleground states. The crowds of students could not have been more responsive, especially when the President pointed out that he and Michelle only paid off their academic debt eight years ago. But he was clearly previewing an attack that has a much broader reach.

The student loan issue will be kept alive by the White House for political reasons, regardless of policy implications. It serves as a rhetorical wedge for the President to hit his presumptive opponent on one of his weakest fronts: His patrician aloofness, life of privilege, and wealth.

“When Michelle and I got married,” the President said in those speeches, “we got poorer together. We added up our assets, and they were zero. We added up the liabilities, and there were a lot of liabilities.” A stark contrast to Romney, the millionaire asset manager.

Hillary Rosen was wrong to talk about Ann Romney never having to work, but the theme is the same: Romney is not capable of sympathizing with the average American because he is not one. Barack Obama is. The White House is on a rhetorical war path, and rightly so.

The deep divide between conservatives and liberals on wealth and equality is very real, and never more important now in a time when income inequality is at an all time high. Conservatives have always been skeptical of egalitarian thinking, dating back to a time when Edmund Burke was warning of the perils of the Egalité of the French Revolution. In a turn of phrase worthy of my old boss Frank Luntz (who flipped the Estate Tax into the Death Tax), we hear Candidate Romney talk of “Punishing success” whenever the President brings up equality or fairness.

Obama countered this argument head on. “In America, we admire success,” he said. “I want everybody to be rich.” But: “America is not just about a few people doing well. America is about giving everybody a chance to do well.”

The narrative is clear. Addressing audiences of college students recently–as they periodically shouted out to him their thousand dollar loan tallies–Obama was justifiably able to say “I’ve been in your shoes.” The other guy has not.

“I didn’t just read about this,” Obama said. “I didn’t just get some talking points.” Like that other guy, the one born with the silver spoon.

“Class warfare” shouts the conservative side. “Fairness” shouts the other. But these concepts have not always belonged to one side or the other, and, as always in politics, they assign their own meanings to the words.

A generation ago, Richard Nixon built a political legacy by championing the Silent Majority, the working man, the hardhats, the people–who like him–made something out of nothing, working their way up, hardscrabble. It’s why veteran journalist Tom Wicker called Nixon “One of Us.” Other, earlier Republicans have been able to connect with the public by talking about the challenges of everyday life. Abraham Lincoln often referred to his family’s finances as “the national debt.” Lincoln led a nation through war while his own budgets were consistently out of balance.

Conservatives may champion “success” and wealth in an Ayn-Randian libertarian sense, but Obama’s student loan attack puts him in the role of the self-made man, the person who worked his way up, in contrast to the one who was given everything and expected “success” as a natural outcome. Mitt Romney thinks he should be president. It’s only fair, after all. “It’s our  turn,” as Ann Romney said.

President Obama offered his rebuttal with his personal story. A difficult childhood, a broken home. Struggles for work and education, student loans that burdened his family even as he rose through the ranks as a political leader.

“Hey, check it out. I’m President of the United States,” he told the cheering crowd in Chapel Hill last week.

Winning elections is ultimately about painting contrasts, and Obama is using the student loan issue–as well as the Buffett Rule debate–to do just that. Romney is not one of us, and the President is. Make no mistake, this debate is ideological: “class warfare” to some, on the right, who reject progressive ideals of equality and fairness. The President should continue engaging this argument.

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