Coming Face to Face with Obama and the Vanishing American Dream

It arrived in my inbox — an invitation to participate in a Town Hall forum with President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. I excitedly sent in the requisite information for the security clearance, together with my question. A few days later, I was informed that I was to show up at 9 a.m. for a forum that would start at noon with the president.

The day of the event, I awoke, miserable, with a nasty sore throat. But I dragged myself up at the crack of dawn, telling myself this could be my chance to finally get the president’s attention drawn to a solution to what many experts consider a far more serious and challenging problem than just about any other, including terrorism: global climate change. I had my question prepared. To address the climate crisis, was Obama considering alternatives to cap and trade now that this approach had been postponed indefinitely bv Congress, such as a carbon fee and dividend, or simply applying existing U.S. environmental laws, in order to act on climate change before it was too late? I had studied how I would respond if President Obama were to ask for more details.

Coughing, sniffing, I waited in line at the Newseum for two hours, along with over 200 other invitees, before we were searched as though we were boarding an international flight. No bottled liquids were allowed inside.

They brought us in to a fishbowl room. Rock & Roll was blaring, and the CNBC hostess, a red-headed, stiletto-heeled woman named Mary, greeted us each with a, “Hi, how are ya? Glad you could come. David will take you to your seat.”

With every seat occupied, and the crowd in their Sunday best, we passed the hour until Obama would arrive taking pictures of each other, with Mary coaching us on how to clap on command, and giving us tips on how to be bold when asking our questions, and not too deferential.

“Any questions?” she asked. I raised my hand, “How will it be decided who will be allowed to ask questions?” We have ten people who have questions prepared, she said, and if we have time, we might get to yours. Crestfallen, but mustering a small amount of hope I could ask my question, I stayed in my seat.

Exactly at noon, after applying makeup, the POTUS arrived, introduced by the same voice we’ve all come accustomed to in movie previews. “The leader of the free world” — dramatic pause — “is losing the confidence of free markets” — dramatic pause. “Millions remain out of work,” — dramatic pause — “and fear their American dreams are slipping out of reach.

“Now, our chief executive comes face to face with his shareholders to prove he means business, answer tough questions and to try to restore faith in his plan for prosperity. Live from the nation’s Capitol.” And out strode Obama. We all did as we were told, rising to our feet, clapping and cheering loudly.

After some pleasantries between the host and the president, exactly four people in the audience — and two who were pre-taped — were allowed to ask the president questions.

And their questions? Well, it was, as Jon Stewart put it, like “meet the depressed.” A bit of staged self-pitying, with even the Wall Street hedge fund manager whining that he felt “like a pinata.”

Obama handled all of the complaints like a father encouraging his children to cheer up and remember that Santa Claus was on his way. But he did so with grace, intelligence, and his usual charm. His answers were long-winded and a bit of stump-speechifying. But clearly, the man knows his stuff.

However, I was shocked to note that, despite record floods in Pakistan, record temperatures globally, forest fires and crop failure in Russia, and despite a rapidly shrinking Arctic ice cap, not once did the words “climate change” cross the president’s lips. Though I appeared on national TV, applauding along with the rest of them, I couldn’t help but feel sad and a bit used.

Later, watching the TV coverage of the event, I imagined Obama felt the same way. His reasoned, careful answers — short on soundbites and lacking the emotional appeal that makes for good TV — were cut away, while the complainers’ words were aired repeatedly.

Though Obama may not feel the same urgency I do about climate change, I can’t help but feel sympathy for a man whose intelligence and thoughtfulness in this age of “info-tainment” seems out of step with the times.

We’re running out of time. The problems are complicated, with lives — indeed, our own future — hanging in the balance. But the American public’s only concern — at least, according to CNBC — is whether or not they can claim their piece of the American dream, the rest of the world be damned.

Daphne Wysham is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she co-directs the Sustainable Energy & Economy Network. www.ips-dc.org. Follow Daphne Wysham on Twitter: www.twitter.com/daphnewysham