Philip Levine has just been named the new U.S. Poet Laureate. How should we interpret that? Did President Obama, who’s been a profound disappointment to organized labor, believe he could partially redeem himself in labor’s eyes by naming Levine, long celebrated as America’s “working class poet” (Levine once belonged to the UAW and worked in Detroit’s auto plants) to the prestigious post?
No one’s suggesting that move this rises to the level of a national security concern or is part of a sinister conspiracy cloaked in intrigue, but it is fair to ask if old-fashioned “identity” politics played a part in it. Alas, even to the non-cynical, the appointment wreaks of calculation.
For the record, it’s not the president who appoints the Poet Laureate; technically, it’s the Library of Congress. Still, a hands-on, media-hip president is going to be calling the shots. Nor is this accusation in any way meant to demean the character or body of work of Philip Levine. Indeed, if anyone deserves being named to the post, it is he. I’ve read Levine’s verse for years, and have always admired him. His “What Work Is” is one of my favorite poems.
Unless we’re badly misreading this, the motivation behind the appointment seems clear. A president doesn’t do anything without a plan. He doesn’t give a speech, return a phone call, visit a city, or answer a policy question without a full work-up and without his advisors’ approval. There is precious little spontaneity in the Oval Office. Accordingly, there’s no way Obama is going to let the Poet Laureate position go to some pilgrim who can’t help him in any way, even if it is only symbolically.
Let’s not forget that this is the same savvy, image-minded president whomade a splashy public display of inviting key Republican leaders to the White House in February, 2009, to watch the Super Bowl with him, believing that this generous display of camaraderie and fraternalism would usher in a new era of bipartisan cooperation. (So how’d that work out for you, Mr. President?)
As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has repeatedly noted, if President Obama truly wanted to get labor in his corner and keep it there, he would go on television and talk about nothing except jobs—creating jobs, maintaining jobs, expanding jobs. Jobs are the one thing working people genuinely care about. If the president truly wanted to reach the average American, he would have made his message personal and direct.
But instead of making it personal and direct, he chose to make it abstract and fuzzy. Instead of dominating the conversation with talk of jobs, jobs and more jobs, Obama has allowed the Republicans to seize control and shift the national conversation to the topic of deficit reduction, something about which most of us know little and care even less.
If Obama honestly believes he can kiss up to the unions—that he can get organized labor to embrace him after all the betrayals, sleights of hand, and false promises—by elevating an acknowledged “working class” figure to Poet Laureate, he’s even more out of touch than anyone previously thought.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org