Humility and Power

It must be difficult to hold a significant (or perhaps even an insignificant) position of power and conduct oneself with modesty. A lack of humility may not prohibit acts of social conscience and generosity, but it frequently results in boorishness.

Self-aggrandizement does not necessarily prohibit someone from having sound judgment. Autobiographies by two recently retired governors of industrial states illustrate the point. Jennifer Granholm was governor of Michigan from 2003 – 2011 and apparently did a remarkable job against significant odds in rejuvenating the automobile industry in what was once the world’s capital of car manufacturing. She was not hurt that, in the final years of her administration, she had significant support from President Barack Obama. He was intent on seeing one of America’s largest industries recover from the economic hardship that had been inflicted upon the country during the George W. Bush years.

While Granholm acknowledges that that she did not handle every obstacle with aplomb and made her share of mistakes, she was somewhat self-indulgent about the successes of her staff and herself. Perhaps as the governor of a large state that was suffering from economic hardships best depicted by filmmaker Michael Moore, she was entitled to be self-congratulatory.

Since she received considerable assistance from President Obama and Vice-President Biden,  she had very little reason to criticize them.

Somewhat more acerbic is the recently released autobiography by Ed Rendell, former Governor of Pennsylvania.  It’s called, A Nation of Wusses: How America’s Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great. Like Granholm, Rendell was in office from 2003-2011. He clearly accomplished a great deal for his state, and in particular the city of Philadelphia, where he was mayor prior to becoming governor.  Much of his focus wason  rejuvenating decaying infrastructure and building new bridges, roads, airport, rail lines, to put his state at or near the top of functioning regions in the northeast.

But he begins his book with a metaphor for what he sees as America’s biggest problem. He relates how,Philadelphia, weather forecasters predicted a blizzard that was going to dump 12-18 inches of snow.  The home-town Eagles decided to postpone their football game, because the team felt that there would be too much congestion and not enough parking. As it turned out, there were only six inches of snow, a rather normal amount for the area at that time of year. Rendell and his son were furious about the game being postponed; they would have trudged through anything to see a “snow bowl.” Rendell argues that in the early days of football (think “Leatherheads”), nothing could have caused a game to be postponed. He called the executives of the hometown Eagles a bunch of “wusses.”

That is the term that he uses for a number of individuals in politics. He directs a great deal of his attention at Republicans, particularly in the Pennsylvania state legislature. He saw them as easily sacrificing the well-being of the commonwealth for their own political gain. He saw them as seeking and accepting political favors in return for obstinance and gridlock. The same was true for some Democrats who seemed to be lacking backbones and would not stand up for the greater good against the GOP.

Most particularly, Rendell strays off the Jennifer Granholm reservation by not hesitating to criticize President Obama and even refers to him as a wuss. Part of his frequent but not exclusive criticism of Obama is that he frequently talks of his “love” for Hillary Clinton and his belief that she would have been a strong candidate in both Pennsylvania and the country at large. He believes that the core of her character is her backbone, and that she is not afraid to stand up to anyone or anything. While he acknowledges that President Obama has been known to stand the line, particularly in foreign affairs and most specifically in the attack on Osama bin Laden, Rendell has significant areas of doubt about the president’s willingness to take on the opposition.

His two areas of disappointment and frustration are ones that are familiar with many progressives. While Rendell prefers the Affordable Health Act to what previously existed, he is most disappointed in the president for backing away from both a single-payer system and if not that, the public option component. Rendell is convinced that Obama was unwilling to take on Republicans and caved in on two policies that would have strengthened health care in the U.S. and enhance his chances of passing more meaningful legislation.

Second is Rendell’s disappointment in Obama’s plan economic stimulus plan. Rendell is fixated on rehabbing the country’s infrastructure. He felt that Obama’s plan was far too limited and focused too much on tax breaks, particularly the for the wealthy, rather than developing projects that would put America’s unemployed, underemployed, and those who had left the work force back to work. This would directly help millions and produce more income for the governmen,t because the newly working would be paying taxes.

It may be too strong and even flamboyant to accuse the president of the United States of acting like a wuss. But Rendell brings up a point that may have characterized the first two years of the Obama Administration. Had the president taken firmer positions in 2009 and 2010, it’s possible that there would have been more clarity to his values and positions, and he could have avoided the electoral debacle of 2010. Had that happened, we might be living in a country characterized more by progressive policies.

About Arthur Lieber:
Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.