Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Obama and the Harsh Realities of Pennsylvania Politics

I had hoped to make my first post something a bit more upbeat, but ideas for posts are starting to pile up and I figure it would be best to get a move on. How's that for an introduction?

The straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, was reading Dana Milbank's article in today's Washington Post about Obama's visit to McKeesport, PA yesterday evening. McKeesport, the "Second City of Allegheney County", was our father's hometown and a place we visited often growing up. We would take week-long trips out the length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to see our grandparents, often finding time to visit Kennywood or the garden club where our grandmother was a member. By the time I started forming memories about the city, it was already in decline from the heyday of Dad's youth. Most of the steel mills sat silent. Stores were melting away from the downtown area. As we grew up, McKeesport sank deeper. Steel mills were torn down, blast furnaces toppled while grown men cried, and little grew up to take the place of the huge and rusty old factories. I recently visited McKeesport for the first time in ten years in order to show my wife where we had spent so much time as children. I was aghast to see how little had changed and how seemingly nothing had changed for the better. The Eat N' Park full of smiley-faced cookies is still right where we left it and with some searching I found the retirement homes my grandparents briefly occupied. Other than that, I didn't know what else to show off. There just isn't much there anymore. I feel a bit sad even for typing that.

So with that in mind, the Washington Post article didn't come as much of a surprise to me -perhaps just a sad reminder of the difference between today's McKeesport and the one Dad talked about all the time. When the furor over Obama's "bitter" remarks flared up, McKeesport is actually one of the places that immediately came to mind for me. With its shrinking, aging population and a lack of jobs, it's just the type of place where people might justifiably be bitter about their lot in life. Regardless of whether Obama misspoke or voiced an opinion he shouldn't have shared, the reactions in the article shows the problems facing his campaign: for people who have been battered by our economy for the better part of the last three decades, Obama will need to talk about something more tangible than hope if he wishes to mend the wounds of his comments and allay the voters' sometimes "illogical" peccadilloes when it comes to his candidacy. Hope is great, but it isn't creating jobs right now in McKeesport.


John said...

I, like you, would love if your first post could have been about something happy and upbeat. Still, I wouldn't trade having this on my blog for basically anything I can think of in the world right now. I think while you were writing your post I was reading the article, and my response was much like yours, except mine wasn't accompanied by memories like you have from your trip to McKeesport with Kristi.

I am hopeful that Obama will rise to the challenge presented by the realities of McKeesport and whole swaths of America that face similar problems. While it isn't easy reading, I am also hopeful that the campaign season might offer chances for Americans like me who live in cities a bit removed from some of this difficulty might come better in touch with what their countrymen are facing every day.

Anyway, I've probably got dozens of other things to say about all this... and maybe more will emerge later, but for now, Thanks so very much for posting this.

Stamford Talk said...

I get most of my political info from you guys, so keep it coming. I'm too emotional about this election to watch the news. I get too frustrated.

So. Obama's comments. They really show that he is an academic and not a politician. There's both good and bad in that obviously. I was a big-time academic in college, so I am down with his attitude of analyzing issues like race and feelings about race. I like that he's honest about it. I freakin' appreciate that.

I think Obama's detached air, which is very useful in some settings, including academia, is not as suited to politics. Hillary is ,so not academic (she's SMART for sure, but not the overtly cerebral time that Obama is). She's not so academic, and people love it.

It's not the candidates' academic-ness or lack of that makes me lean toward Obama. I bring that up because I think it is a big dynamic in the rage, as his comments about poor whites show.

Venice said...

A very poignant and well-written post! I can certainly see why people in industrial cities are hurting today. However, there is always a bright side as well. Whereas people in McKeesport have been battered by the economy, the fact is that things are still better than they were 30 years ago. If we were to compare today’s world with 1978, we would find that there are hundreds of millions of people in China, India, and other Asian countries who have lifted themselves out poverty. And by poverty, I mean truly abject, awful poverty, far worse than what Americans in Youngstown or McKeesport endure. There are many reasons for this dramatic rise in well-being across the world, but one is certainly the willingness of Americans to buy products from overseas. Of course, this same factor is partly—though surely not entirely— responsible for the current decline of industrial towns in the United States.
All of this is little consolation to the people of McKeesport. But I think it’s something to keep in mind, if only because it helps to stem off the pessimism that seems to have taken over our national consciousness. The world economy can change enormously in 30 years and probably will. In determining how it changes, hope—that most abstract of concepts—may be very important indeed.

Matt said...

See, I like that those last two comments came right next to each other. I totally agree with what both of you said. Speaking as somebody who has spent way too much time in academic circles, I know exactly what you mean when you say that Obama speaks too much like an academic. I often find myself discussing issues from both sides, giving more nuanced views that anybody else involved in the conversation really wants to hear. People want to know where you stand, what you can do for them, whose side you are on. Nuanced arguments don't make good sound bites either.

Venice is making one of those careful arguments. I totally agree with everything said but have to point out that in our political system now, you aren't allowed to point to foreign countries and show how things that are negative for Americans are positives for the rest of the world. Everybody wants to be better off than their parents' generation. People in McKeesport and similar places face the fact that they are going to be worse off personally. If one reporter can find three people on the street of an American city to give quotes about how fed up about where they are now, that's the story we read in tomorrow's paper, regardless of how many people in Africa now have clean drinking water or how the GDP of India grows.

John said...

This is very cool and interesting stuff. What baffles me at times is that direct aid or programs targeted at some of the problems, especially jobs, would be a tough sell. If, for example, Obama or Clinton were to suggest a massive jobs program aimed at improving infrastructure (something needed in many parts of America) it would be trounced on the Right as a push for bigger government. Never mind the direct aid it would provide to the families and individuals who could make the leap out of unemployment.

Another pet idea that I always have, admittedly in a biased way as an alum of the program, is that Democrats should rally around the idea of expanding programs like AmeriCorps. Imagine, for a moment, the impact that it might have if 30% of college graduates left school and immediately worked for a year in direct service environments helping at local schools, shelters, affordable housing providers, parks, etc. Imagine if only 30% of students did this for a year between high school and college.

Now, don't get me wrong, I guess that 30% is an insanely huge goal, but what if the hopemonger-in-chief made it his mission to push America back towards a culture of service. I was struck in a post last week by the fact that Jeremiah Wright was motivated to leave school and join the Marines by JFK's speech encouraging Americans to "ask not what your country could do for you."

Unfortunately, the battle lines are so often well drawn in ways that make it hard to avoid stomping over the same old path. That said, imagine if a candidate opted out of the supposed duality "what's good for them is taking from us" and said, "let's focus on what's good for us in ways that could be good for everybody."

Here, now, I'm getting all academic. Clearly I'm WAY too open to it myself, but that's the kinda stuff that gets me charged up... it's imagining what the possibilities are in Mr. Venice's (I think accurate) prediction that we will see the world economy "change enormously" in the next 30 years. If we know the book is going to be tossed out the window... what do we want the new book to look like, and where do we want to find ourselves in it?

Back to where I started, I think that one way is to connect "Change" to personal tangible change. Not just, "I'm going to change Washington," but more clearly, "I'm going to make Washington listen to you and take care of you, jobless American." I think that's the direction it seems Obama is often going... but I agree that he needs to get more clear.

Venice said...

Matt, that’s a very good point about American politics: pointing to success in other parts of the world just doesn’t bring votes. Very sad but also probably not limited to this country: I doubt a rising standard of living in China makes, say, Italian artisans very happy either!

I think the Americorps idea is a really good one. I would be less enthusiastic about the infrastructure proposal, only because it could go very wrong. Perhaps this counts as one of those attacks from the Right . For example, Japan’s government spends incredible amount of money on construction projects. These projects do provide jobs for countless people but they do so at a real cost. Tax dollars—or tax yen—is only one such cost. It also creates a political system that resembles a fiefdom: vote for me because I’ll pour more money into your town than the next guy. In some towns there is really no economy except that provided by the government. The construction ends up getting out of hand, with needless buildings and roads and concrete absolutely everywhere. Japan’s beauty was once legendary and even today parts of the country are spectacular, but much of the countryside is covered in concrete. And of course the government chooses contracts based on the votes they’ll bring, not efficiency. Which leads to all the problems that protectionist policies usually lead to.
That being said, there is probably something to be done. It is the case that this country’s infrastructure is very outdated and that could be a way of killing two birds with one stone. But I think we should be careful going down that road. I have no idea what the solution is, but I think that more affordable health care and education would help. It’s never a nice thing to a lose a job but it’s better if you can still visit the doctor and your kids can go to college!