Sunday, June 24, 2012
I've taught at Missouri Southern State University, a small college in Joplin. I tell my students that while I am from New York, I am from the southwest Missouri part of New York. Politically and demographically, the culture of rural upstate new York is not unlike southwest Missouri. My students are from the same place as Harry Truman.
The Midwest is a place where tribal-type loyalties persist and where churches abound. It is not quite Norman Rockwell anymore, but there are a lot of Andy Griffith and Aunt Bee types still around. The culture is not unlike the rural parts of New York.
There is also the same kind of resilience that is evident after tornadoes and other disasters. The community barn-raising mentality is still very much alive and well in places like Missouri.
Look at how quickly Joplin, Mo., has been and is being rebuilt after last year's devastating F-5 tornado. Its rise from the ashes has been remarkable and its progress much faster than the more sluggish pace of resurrection of post-Katrina New Orleans. Maybe it's the spirit of self-reliance that is really on display here. Midwesterners are more apt to rescue themselves than they are to wait for their rescuers.
There is a pervasive feeling of community consciousness and pride that is on display in the Friday night high school football games, and the Saturday morning pancake breakfasts. In the Midwest, the culture of small-town America still exists.
A guy like Bill Clinton from small-town Arkansas, or Harry Truman from small-town Missouri, understood that culture well, and could tap into it. A guy like Barack Obama, born in Hawaii and trained as a Chicago community organizer, has a little tougher time relating to it.
Harry Truman played well in the heartland because he was from the heartland. He understood it. He was genuine. They don't much cotton to phonies in places like Missouri.
No amount of dressing up and puffing up will ever change who a candidate essentially is. The slickness and slipperiness of Mitt Romney will ultimately cause him to self-deport, I think.
But if President Obama persists in being true to his values, true to his tribe, and true to himself, he will regain his footing and ultimately triumph. It doesn't matter if your tribe is from Oahu, South Chicago or Southwest Missouri. Your tribe is your tribe. Your loyalty is your loyalty. Being real always trumps being disingenuous.
The problem with President Obama is Professor Obama. He must learn to avoid equivocation and professorial diatribes examining all sides of every issue. As smart as he is, the Midwestern electorate is not happy to be lectured to, nor pandered to. They will listen, however, if you say what you mean and mean what you say.
Obama must stop channelling his inner Adlai Stevenson, and start channelling his inner Harry Truman. He has to, as Harry would say, not "Give 'em hell." but "Tell the truth, and they'll think it's hell."
He has to call his opponents out on their obstructionist strategy. Instead of criticizing Congress generically as an institution, he must pin the tail on the non-donkeys who are doing all the braying but none of the real work. He needs to call out the real obstructionists for who they are, the Do-Nothing Republican Congress, because it is only the Republicans who are blocking his every effort to revive the economy, to their own political advantage, and to the disadvantage of the country. Harry Truman had no problem doing that and it enabled him to come back from the politically dead and win the 1948 election.
When then-Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles was being written off for re-election in 1994, and the odds favored upstart Jeb Bush, he walked out of a Miami television studio on a Sunday morning, saying "The He Coon walks by the light of day!"
The Miami political punditry pronounced him bizarre, but the down-home Floridians from the Panhandle knew exactly what he meant. Enough is enough, Chiles was saying, "I am the governor of this state and I am not putting up with this anymore! I'm outta here!"
Chiles carried the Panhandle and the rest of Florida to win re-election.
The lesson? Be who you are. Don't play footsie with your implacable foes and then think that your tribe will still adore you. Stay true to yourself and your core philosophy.
When you do, you can appeal to people from the Midwestern swing states, and live to see a second term. If not, it could be hello, President Romney, welcome to Missouri!
The choice is Obama's — President, or professor.
Personally, I kind of like President Obama, especially when he really knows who he is, and what he stands for. So will Missourians and other Midwesterners who need to not only like him, but vote for him.
Show me, Mr. President. That is a winning strategy.