Winter Term Final Paper
February 6, 2009
My Winter Term really was in two parts. I spent the larger portion in Indianapolis at the Statehouse. The last five days, however, I was in D.C. for the Presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama. In both places I was getting to observe and in some cases be a part of the transition that both the state and federal governments were making after the recent elections last November. There were some rocky starts in some areas and some moments of real hope and faith in our government systems.
Since the Winter Term itself was in two pieces, I feel that doing this paper in separate pieces would be the most effective. I will start with the work in Indy and then reflect on the experience of Washington D.C.
The experience I had working in Indianapolis was very educational and surprisingly fast. I knew the days were going to be long, often time leaving DePauw’s campus before the sun came up and getting back to campus after it had already gone down. It was so exciting though to be in Indy and a part of the legislative session just as it was beginning.
There were a few focuses while I was in Indy. First, I wanted to see if the rookie legislators would have much impact, especially in the starting days. They seemed to with Representatives like Nancy Michael making a big impact early on. I also was interested to see how everything would happen since the Democrats have such a strong hold in the House while the Republicans still completely own the Senate.
The first big “fight” of the session would probably be the decision (or lack there of) of what to do with the state surplus. Now, we heard Mitch Daniels in both his inaugural address and his State of the State talk about how fortunate of a situation Indiana is in by having a surplus. Many states are not in that position currently. Having said that, the question then is do we spend it now in order to help Hoosiers that are feeling the pinch of the economic crisis or should we hold on to it for fear that this rainy day fund may need to go to a rainier day in the near future? As can be imagined, the Democrats think the money should be used now before more Hoosiers suffer, while the GOP feels that the money should be held on to. The Democrats’ case is that if we spend it now and the crisis gets any worse and we spend the funds now, we will have nothing to offer newly affected Hoosiers. How this will be resolved has yet to be seen and probably won’t come to any real resolution until the very end of the session, in which case any legislation promoting spending it the funds may get shot down in the Senate anyways. This will be an interesting fight to watch to the bitter end.
The other interesting part of the State experience was in the environmental realm. I met quite a bit with Representative Win Moses who is the chair of the Committee on Commerce, Utilities, and Energy. After having lunch with him I actually got him to agree to have a committee hearing before the Winter Term period was over. That way I could actually see a hearing and even give some input on areas of environmental policy that I was very comfortable about. This was probably the most exciting part of my experience at the state level. There was something reaffirming to know that I as a normal citizen could actually effect the policy the state may pass just by meeting with my Representative and making him aware of my concerns. I have known since beginning Social Studies in the third grade that this was how the United States government at all levels was supposed to work but for some reason over the last few years had lost hope that this was actually how it worked. Maybe this was because I grew up observing an administration that many times seemed to disregard public opinion very easily. My experience at the state level changed my opinion back to what I learned in the third grade; that if I worked hard enough and made sure I was well informed, I could make a difference on public policy.
After working for the first few weeks of Winter Term at the state level I flew off to Washington D.C. for the Presidential Inauguration as a part of the University Presidential Inaugural Conference. I was there from January 17th to the 21st. Overall it was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, and this was for many reasons.
First was just the shear magnitude of what the conference offered me. We got to see unbelievable speakers. We listened to Al Gore, Colin Powell, Paul Begala, Luke Russert, James Carville, Mary Matalin, and Tucker Carlson. All of these speakers addressed a similar topic; looking at the challenges that Barack Obama was going to have taking the position of President in the U.S. right now.
There were many challenges listed, many of them quite obvious. There were challenges mentioned with the healthcare system, the environment, and the economy. Because we had speakers from both sides of the aisle I thought I would see more clash on these issues, but I did not. The collective opinion seemed to be the Barack Obama was going to be taking on the largest challenge of any president in modern history.
There were some bigger challenges though that I feel aren’t so obvious that Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala spent a good deal of time on. They talked about the obstacle of expectations. They spoke about the almost God-like or Messiah-like status that Barack Obama seemed to gain during the election process, both through the primary and the general elections. Now, neither one of these men, one an avid Republican and the other a die-hard Democrat, spent time blaming Obama for these expectations. Whether or not Obama tried to create this image of himself seemed irrelevant. Both Begala and Carlson seemed to agree however that these expectations are dangerous and that Obama, nor any human being for that matter, will ever be able to live up to these expectations. Tucker Carlson told a story about his cousin. His cousin was in medical school in California, had a house on the beach, a dog, a beautiful girlfriend, and a very bright future. He went to an Obama rally and was so inspired that he sold his home, dropped out of school, dumped his girlfriend, sold his dog, and moved to Iowa to work on the Obama campaign because he really did believe that the moment after Obama took the oath all of the country’s problems would be solved. He gave up his life to work for an expectation that is to high to ever really come to fruition.
These sorts of expectations can be dangerous. When there are expectations that cannot be lived up to, the chance of making the public mad or disappointed very quickly is high. A disgruntled public is not what Obama needs in order to get policy moving. He therefore could have a cyclical system that works against everything that he wants to get done.
The other challenge that Obama may have is trying to get Americans working together again. As Robert Putnam pointed out is his book Bowling Alone, Americans are working together less and less for any sort of cause, not just political ones. This will make it hard to organize the kind of movements necessary to turn the country around. This is not to say that there are less and less people interested, just that these people who are interested aren’t meeting and organizing anymore. As Putnam points out, there are more and more people in the U.S. who are enjoying bowling as a leisure activity, but fewer and fewer people are actually joining bowling leagues. In our democracy, interest without organization does not get very far. This will be a challenge for Obama because the grassroots movements that Obama built himself on do not currently exist as a strong arm outside of political campaigns. Maybe this will change, but the trends in America do not seem to promote this change.
The most amazing thing about this entire Winter Term though was not one particular topic area but more just observing both transitions. The Hoosier state was inaugurating an incumbent while the federal was having what has been noted as possibly being the largest shift in the country’s history when it come to administration and policy. Both pointed out the same amazing thing about the U.S. government though; how peaceful the transition can be. We, as American citizens, take this for absolute granted. I learned in my Comparative Politics course last semester how rare this really is. There have been many transitions in government throughout the history of world and very few of them happen as peacefully as happens in the U.S. every four years. The transitions many times come out of revolutions or coups and sometimes completely rewritten constitutions. This doesn’t just happen in places like Nigeria and Iraq however. We can look at France for instance. They have had five different constitutions after forgoing the tradition of the monarch. This happened though bloody revolutions and a lot of rioting. It is true now that France does have peaceful elections, but this has not been going on for very long. Getting to be in both Indianapolis and Washington D.C. during a time of government transition I discovered a bigger appreciation for the way our government works. Especially at the federal level, getting to witness this peaceful transition, watching one world leader step down and another one begin, was incredible. It made me sure that while I may never stop questioning that complexity and uniqueness of the way governments in the U.S. transitions, I will always have a greater admiration for it.