(Op-ed for New York Times, Oct. 2012)
Dear Mr. President,
Let’s be honest. Do you regard getting the healthcare reform through as redemption of the promise of change? What happened to the visions, the challenging spirit, what happened to the movement? Now, following the 2012 campaign from abroad I feel compelled to ask, do you consider a second term in the White House as a goal in itself?
Surely, the wave of hopes and aspirations that carried you to office was unprecedented. You were given a clear mandate by the American people to effect change. And what was ever more extraordinary, you had practically all the people of Europe and a substantial part of the population of the whole world behind you as well. Apart from prospects of personal gains or losses, apart from habitual distinctions between friends or foes, people around the globe are realizing that change has become a life and death question for all of humanity. And the role of USA is paramount.
Though our national affiliations and respective political systems doesn’t reflect this reality, you, Mr. President, might have been the first leader to be entrusted with a kind of global mandate and the first leader to be considered a personification of worldwide aspirations for effecting changes for the benefit of humanity as a whole.
Regardless of how you have chosen to run your 2012 campaign, the pressing question remains, can you deliver on the promises of change?
USA is important and you, sir, are important, but living in a democracy, the one who is truly important is the ordinary citizen. Let’s remind ourselves that leadership within a democracy is all about fulfilling the wishes of ordinary people. But to be capable of properly assessing their wishes, ordinary citizens must be aware of their own importance on the one hand and on the other, they need to have leaders who are willing to present, in a truthful way, all the necessary information upon which decisions are to be made.
Now, how are we doing with that? Would you agree that in the past three decades or more, the workings of power have grown ever more secretive? Important decisions affecting all of society are taken in closed chambers between powerful groupings, which remain unknown to the public. Our public political institutions however seem more and more like scenes for well-rehearsed political play-acting, our theaters of democracy.
Among the members of every Western society, a division has been drawn between those who have access to the closed chambers of power, the people of importance, and those outside these chambers, the people devoid of importance. Whereas in a democracy, leadership should be directed towards inspiring and sustaining a spirit of self-governance in ordinary citizens, we have made a habit of doing the opposite. Whether deliberate or not, in contemporary Western societies power is exercised in such a way that ordinary citizens are constantly reminded of their inferiority.
Politicians and business leaders alike no longer feel obliged to communicate the real motives behind their decisions. Instead, leaders strive to communicate motives, which are logical and plausible, probably even thoughtful and noble. Within the healthcare system in Denmark, for example, during the past ten years substantial public assets have been transferred to the private sector. The political motif was ideological, but the way it was ‘sold’ to the Danish public was through issuing a “guarantee of treatment”.
Discrepancies of this kind are widespread, cause severe confusion, and may ultimately have ruined the faculty of discernment in the heart of the individual. This has, in turn, further depleted the self-esteem of ordinary citizens, and has led them to back off from any kind of political involvement.
In these obscure political settings large parts of society, not least the most privileged, have been rather creative in finding answers to the question: “What can my country do for me?” In witnessing the materialistic heyday of some segments of society, all those who are willing to serve must have felt like outright fools.
But by 2012, “there is, before all peoples, a precious chance to turn the black tide of events.”
Regardless of all the twists and turns of an election campaign, please allow me to make a suggestion towards the salvage of the political movement, you once headed. If you, sir, restore trust in the ordinary citizen by restoring transparency to the workings of power, you would recover your ability to address each citizen personally in this manner:
No matter how lousy you might think you have done so far, if I ask you to stand up as a role-model for your kids, for your wife, for your employees, for people in the local community, can you do that? The change of heart in American politics would make every citizen feel as empowered as to respond: “Yes, I can!”
In meeting the challenges we are facing, contributions of every single member of society are both needed and treasured; if I ask you to make a fresh determination to quit your addiction or any other kind of self-destructive behavior and replaced it with the pursuit of a dignified life, can you do that? Every citizen would feel as encouraged as to respond: “Yes, I can!”
In order to create a just and lasting peace, the American people and people of the whole Western world have to address the issue of the unequal distribution of wealth in the world; if I ask you to accept sacrifices for the benefit of raising the living conditions for people in developing countries, can you approve of that? Citizens of the Western world would become as aware of their true potential and as aware of their long-term interests as to respond, each on his or her own part: “Yes, I can!”
As seen from a point of view of a foreigner, a point of view of someone outside the inner circles, there is still the possibility for you, sir, to become one of the greatest American presidents ever. All greatness is in the character. And the power to transform our world resides in Washington Decency.