Democrats and liberals spend a lot of time wondering why President Obama isn't advancing the progressive agenda he espoused on the campaign trail, but I have come to believe that it might be nothing more complicated than the Mean Girls Syndrome.
A confession is in order: I sat at the mean girls' lunch table in the eighth grade. For a bookworm from the lower middle class who was picked for sports teams in P.E. class just ahead of the kid with the leg brace, I felt lucky to be among the chosen for that golden year.
But the price of admittance to this elite club was high: I had to engage in the cruelties for which mean girls everywhere are known. I hated seeing their most despised victim, Cindy, come into the lunchroom, because I would be expected to participate in the mockery. But what I hated more was being excluded from the popular group, so I joined in. I knew it was wrong, but I did it.
And that, I believe, is the clue to what causes our president to capitulate on critical issues such as the public option, financial reform, and tax cuts. This theory may even explain why the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, caved to pressure from Wall Street to jettison the Glass-Steagall Act, the financial firewall that had protected us from economic catastrophe for nearly 70 years.
Like me, both Clinton and Obama came from modest circumstances. My father worked two jobs to put food on the table, my mother took in sewing so I had clothes to wear, and I did not enjoy the luxury of air-conditioning until I was an adult and could afford to buy a window unit myself. We went for years at a time without a television, because my parents had to save up money to get the broken one repaired.
To say that I was on the lowest level of the pecking order is not an exaggeration and helps explain why I felt so flattered to be a part of the mean girls' club. I was an excellent student who had been taught to be kind to others, but no matter how many academic accolades came my way, no matter how bad I felt about tormenting an even less popular girl, I could not resist the lure of basking in the reflected glory of these junior high school power brokers.
Considering the personal achievements of Obama and Clinton, one would assume them to be immune to the entreaties of Harvard Club denizens. But the imprint of childhood "otherness" is so strong that it marks most of us forever, even to the point that no matter how old we are, we can usually recount in great detail a cruelty visited upon us decades earlier.
It seems quite plausible that both Obama and Clinton were unable to get over their outsider status and, as a result, were lured into suspending their intellect and knowledge of history and human nature to make common cause with their court flatterers — for nothing more than the temporary enjoyment of being among the golden boys.
Before Obama's capitulation on issues important to everyone who doesn't have a place in the Hamptons, I believed that a person from humble beginnings made for a better leader, because he or she had not been insulated by the wealth and privilege of men like George W. Bush or Al Gore.
But I must recant this theory as I have watched our president sacrifice the working and middle classes on the altar of his need to be accepted by men who, even now, would not want to belong to a club that would let him be a member. His enemies cleverly call his actions "compromises," in service to his "pragmatic" side, which is a truly brilliant manipulation.
When Republicans call Obama a pragmatist, what I think they really mean is that they got him to sell out for a spot at the lunch table, and if they told him the truth, he'd stop rolling over for them, and they'd have to find a new chump.
Besides, it's way more fun for the mean girls to utilize their real power by getting their social inferiors to do their dirty work. I know — I was one of them once.
Ruth Ogles Johnson, a Flyer contributor and online columnist, works in sales and management.