Obama’s Leadership Shortage

His policies are fine. But the President is often a prisoner of his instincts

On the first Monday in October, Kasie Hunt of NBC asked U.S. Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, what his feelings were about President Obama’s response to the Ebola threat. He said, and I quote, “Ahhh-uhhhhhhhhhm,” followed by two minutes of gobbledygook. Two days later, Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator from Kentucky, was asked who she voted for in 2008 and 2012. Her answer was similarly excruciating, and foolish. She cited the privacy of the ballot box. And about the same time, former-nearly-everything Leon Panetta landed a hammer blow on his old boss: “He [Obama] approaches things like a law professor in presenting a logic of his position … My experience in Washington is that logic alone doesn’t work. Once you lay out a position, you are going to roll up your sleeves and you have to fight to get it done … In order for Presidents to succeed, they cannot just–when they run into problems–step back and give up.”

All of this, especially Panetta, added fuel to the eternal bonfire of venality from the right. That Obama’s presidency has “disintegrated” or “crumbled” is now an article of faith in the Fox holes. Drudge featured an Ebola poster with the O an Obama symbol. That’s about as funny as MoveOn.org’s infamous “General Betrayus” ad. So it’s over, right? Obama’s toast, or a spectacularly terrible President at the very least, right?

Uhhhhhm. This is the part where I’m supposed to defend the President. He really did pull us out of a probable depression with an effective stimulus package; the economy continues to wheeze, but it wheezes forward. He really did make history by producing a universal health care plan that will not be repealed but will be reformed over time. The nonstop Republican critique that these programs were “disasters” has been rendered ridiculous. (In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell had to pull a Mark Pryor on that state’s very successful version of Obama’s plan.) The President has been sane and relatively moderate in his selection of Supreme Court Justices. His proposed job-growth policies would probably work, if given a chance by the Republicans.

He has been sane, too, in his foreign policy, for the most part. Those who say he should have been tougher on ISIS by arming the Syrian rebels–talking to you, Madam Secretary and Mr. Panetta–are wildly wrong. We would have wound up arming ISIS. There is precedent for this: we offered a fabulous buffet of armaments to the Iraqis, who left them for ISIS as they turned tail and ran in Mosul. Obama did cleave to the dreadful Nouri al-Maliki too uncritically–and thereby allowed a corrupt Shi’ite fragment to call its sectarian tune. That was Obama’s fundamental Iraq mistake.

But who hasn’t made an Iraq mistake over the past decade? The proof of Obama’s moderation can be found in the blundering simplicity of his critics: the neo-imperialists who think we can actually determine, by force of arms, what happens in the Middle East; the left-libertarians who don’t think we have the right to protect ourselves from terrorism by launching drone strikes, conducting special operations and tracking terrorist phone calls. Obama has stood as a bulwark against the irrationalities of both parties.

That’s the case for Obama. I really believe it. But I also believe that Panetta has a point. It is about the ethereal nature of true leadership. I remember writing a similar defense of Jimmy Carter nearly 40 years ago: a great number of the policies that Ronald Reagan was later given credit for launching–Paul Volcker’s tough inflation cure; a bristling stand against the Soviets, including intermediate missiles in Europe–were Carter’s policies first. He slugged his way to a historic peace treaty in the Middle East, but he didn’t convey two essential American qualities: forcefulness and optimism. Indeed, if you look at his infamous “malaise” speech, it’s a riveting piece of work, containing more tough truth about the country than the pile of Democratic utterances in the ensuing decade. I remember thinking, Poor Jimmy: history has led America to a rut, and we’ll never be as powerful as we once were. Reagan proved me young and foolish. Some of his achievements are illusory or attributable to Carter policies (as in economics), but the man knew how to lead.

I can’t say that for Obama. I sense that Panetta is right about his unwillingness to fight. Lately, the President’s body language has too often conveyed disgust and cynicism. He seems defeated by the trivial pursuits of the media and his opponents. He does not have the sunny conviction necessary to carry the country through a period of near biblical plagues and wars. His policies and popularity have been crippled by his dour political sense. A basic law of politics: this cannot last. But I have no idea what comes next.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

Read next: A Troubled American Moment

TIME nation

A Troubled American Moment

As conspiracy theories abound, voters are uncertain about what to believe

“How do you feel about the federal government buying tons of ammunition for the post office in order to raise the price of ammo for gun owners?” was the first question I got at a town meeting in Shreveport, La. Kevin and Lois Martello, a dentist and speech therapist, respectively, had put together a group of 15 friends and neighbors to talk politics, and it was pretty intense from the start. I asked Lee Foshee, who had raised the post-office question, where he’d heard that. He told me he had several sources. One of them may have been the right-wing Breitbart website, I later learned, which has been tracking ammo sales to federal agencies. Breitbart didn’t mention the price-raising strategy, but Bill Kostelka, a certified public accountant, confirmed that he’d had to stand in line to buy .22-caliber rounds recently. (For the record: the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is armed and needs ammo from time to time.)

It’s hard to know what to believe,” said Lois Martello, the host, who seemed as nonplussed by the post-office-ammo conspiracy as I was. She and her husband were a bit more moderate than some of their friends. “Especially in the election season,” she continued, “when all the ads are on the air. But even on the news, it’s hard to tell what’s real.” I was tempted to defend my profession, but we seemed to be in a full-fledged American Moment, and I didn’t want to kill the buzz. Anyway, Kevin Martello, Lois’ husband, tried to take the conversation “in a different direction,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty concerned that the top 1% of the population controls 40% of the wealth in this country.”

There were a couple of head nods but not much commentary. There was more concern about government waste than about unseen wealth. Indeed, another chorus of consternation ensued, this time about food stamps. Waylon Bates, the principal of the local middle school, said he’d seen people “buying T-bone steaks and giant bottles of orange soda” with government scrip. Others said they’d seen the very same thing. And Foshee said he’d seen long lines at a combination liquor store and check-cashing place–a fine establishment, no doubt–on the day the Social Security disability checks came out each month.

I have heard the T-bone steak and orange-soda riff a number of times on road trips in recent years. It is always T-bone steaks. Sometimes it’s dog food too. Is it true? Maybe so; there are food-stamp abuses, no doubt. Or maybe it happened once, someone saw it, and the story spread, sprayed into the atmosphere by talk radio. It is now an urban (and rural) legend. The food-stamp stories mix with more purposeful fantasies spread by interest groups, like the National Rifle Association’s constant spew that the government wants to “take away” your guns rather than merely regulate their use. And then there are the immigrant stories: Kostelka heard about a carload of Mexicans stopped by the local police without driver’s licenses or proof of residency. “And they were given a fine and set free,” he said. True, no doubt, but incomplete: fewer would-be immigrants have been crossing the border in recent years, and the Obama Administration has been sending record numbers back home.

Democrats are swimming against the prevailing cynicism as they attempt to retain the Senate this year. Across the South, their candidates are placing a heavy bet on women’s issues, especially equal pay, and education. In some places, like North Carolina, where a traditional emphasis on education spending has been violated by the Republican state legislature, they have a chance to win. In Louisiana, where Senator Mary Landrieu is facing a virtual candidate named Bill Cassidy–local reporters claim they can’t find the guy, and I couldn’t either–the incumbent is facing a real hurdle. The hurdle is Barack Obama, about whom the crazy rumors are–still!–thick, and the ads are constant: each of the incumbent Democratic Senators running in the Southern states I visited has voted with the President more than 90% of the time. That is one thing every voter who enters the polls will know next month.

There is also an undercurrent of fear–about ISIS and Ebola–that does not help the Democrats. Most of the people I talked with don’t think this federal government is competent to handle anything. And there is an undercurrent of exhaustion, especially among Democrats who have talked themselves silly trying to dispel the rumor fog that has engulfed political discourse. These are stories that stick in the mind and rot the body politic. They are a dominant political currency, and not just in the South.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/politics

TIME Joe Klein road trip

A Glimmer of Arkansas’ Future

Rison, Arkansas

There was one African-American who attended Tom Cotton’s early afternoon rally in a pleasant little grove of trees on Rison’s dusty Main Street. Her name was Patricia Mays and she was running for state representative–as a Republican, against a Democratic incumbent. Mays is young and attractive, and very straight ahead: She has a PhD in industrial engineering from Texas A&M, and she has four issues. They are: abortion, education reform, health care and jobs. We spoke about all of them and she had some interesting ideas, especially in health care where she supports a system of local clinics where the doctors are paid directly by the patients, eliminating the insurance companies. “Then you could offer a major medical plan on top of that,” she said. (We didn’t talk about how this would be funded, but she said, correctly, that it would be a lot cheaper with the insurance companies out of the picture.)

I asked her why she was running as a Republican. “Because of my personal values,” she said. And what did her African-American friends think of it? “People tend to vote the party without thinking about it too much. They don’t know the details. But when I tell the people in my church, for example,” she said, that the Democrats may have been for civil rights but, “they’re in favor of abortion and the homosexual agenda, people say, ‘I didn’t know that.'”

This is somewhat hard to believe, given the never-ending wonderwall of negative television ads–although, significantly, I haven’t seen any ads that vamped on the “homosexual agenda.” But it’s not hard to believe that bright conservative African-American (and Latino) candidates like Mays are going to have a piece of the American future.

The Republicans have given Democrats the gift of intolerance in a rapidly-changing country. A Republican officeholder in Tennessee told me privately, “If we could get immigration solved, a lot of conservative, church-going, business-owning Hispanics would be a natural fit for our party.” This is not a new thought: it was at the heart of Karl Rove’s party-building mantra. As time passes, though, I sense that many more Republican office-holders are seeing the wisdom and efficacy, and also the justice, of this path. I’d be surprised in a Republican Congress didn’t come up with some immigration plan in the next term. The problem is that nativism is as compelling as ever down among the grass roots.

The Democrats, meanwhile, seem smug and bereft of any significant ideas for reforming a government that everyone I’ve met on this road trip–everyone–assumes is too big, broken and inept. Granted, it’s the South…but the news in the world is grim and scary. “Given what’s happened this week,” says Tom Cotton, noting the Secret Service and Ebola breaches, “it’s not easy to argue that the government is doing its job very well.”

And you can bet that Leon Panetta’s bombshell portrayal of President Obama as easily disappointed and unwilling to fight will find its way to the public–those sorts of characterizations always do–and have an impact, especially on disappointed Democrats in the coming election.

As I proceed on these road trips, year after year, the levels of disgust and cynicism just seem to compound. I’ll have more to say about that in my print column this week.

TIME Joe Klein road trip

Cotton in Arkansas

Monticello, Arkansas

It is not enough today in the south to say that individuals have a constitutional right to bear arms. No, “It is a God given right,” Rep. Tom Cotton told about 50 Tea Party and 2nd Amendment activists at the Drew County fairgrounds on a crisp October Saturday.

It is not enough for teenagers to have the right to bear arms, children do, too. Cotton, who is running for the U.S. Senate, poses with a tiny girl who has just won a pink bb rifle that is nearly taller than she is in the Tea Party raffle. “You know,” the former Army Captain tells the girl, “when I was in the Army, I had to keep my rifle at my side, at all times.” Now, he and his wife keep handguns next to their bed.

I suspect that all this could seem a bit grotesque to northerners, an overreaction to the various efforts to put a few moderate restrictions on the use and sale of guns. But in the south, it is part of an elaborate mindset, which has developed–with no small help from the National Rifle Association–over the past decade or so. All the pieces fit neatly: Crime is everywhere. You need to protect yourself. You not only have the right to carry guns, but also the right to carry concealed weapons. In Akansas, and before that in Louisiana and Mississippi, I heard women complain about their inability to carry their concealed weapons when they visit their children in New York. “I mean, New York!” A woman in Shreveport told me. (I was happy to tell her that New York was safer than most southern cities.) And on top of that, we have terrorists sneaking across the “unprotected” border. And on top of that now, we have Ebola.

The day before, Cotton had joined with Arkansas’ other members of Congress to call for a complete travel ban on flights from ebola-affected countries. “We have terrorists coming in with bombs strapped to their underpants,” Cotton told me afterward. “Do you think it’s impossible that they will start sending people infected with Ebola?” Immediately, I think of all those girls kidnapped by Boko Haram…and yeah, it’s possible.

Cotton is, obviously, very conservative, but he’s not a half-crazed firebrand. He is smart and disciplined. A lot of people in the south reflexively oppose the President’s decision to send troops to combat Ebola in Africa, but Cotton is for it: “This is the sort of mission we can do very well,” he said. “We have the medical training, the technology, the ability to organize clinics on the ground.”

Cotton is running against the Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor, an estimable moderate, but he’s got a problem. He may be opposed to gun control, “but he voted for the President’s Supreme Court nominees,” Cotton points out, “and they vote for gun control.”

I tried to catch up with Pryor. We missed each other at the Little Rock Run for the Cure–an exhilarating event that jammed downtown with thousands of people–and then he dived into debate prep, which is probably a good call. As always, debates are a telling event in high-profile political campaigns. That’s one of the reason why it’s foolish to make predictions in many of these races. The Republicans have a coherent argument–federal overreach and an unpopular President–but the individual attractiveness, and credibility, of the candidates will have an impact on how people, especially white women, vote. It always does.



Taj Mahal’s Delta Blues Cruise

Joe Klein's Road Trip in Greenville, MS
Daymon Gardner for TIME Musician Taj Mahal, left, and Joe Klein, right, at Doe's Eat Place in Greenville, Miss. on Sept. 30, 2014.

New Orleans

There is one basic rule when a musician comes along on one of my road trips: You don’t have to play. I like musicians, love the way they see and hear things. It’s nice when they do play–as Ry Cooder did last year–and a little disappointing if they don’t. The great American blues musician Taj Mahal brought his guitar and five-string ukelele along for the ride, but he chose not to bring them to the New Hope First Baptist church. “You don’t play my music in churches down here,” he explained. “It’s the devil’s music and I don’t sing gospel.”

Ah, the old bifurcation between blues and gospel. After all, the devil did teach Robert Johnson how to play the blues out on Highway 61, which we drove from Memphis to Greenville. Taj was blown away by the Greenville town meeting, which you can read about here. And so was I. There were more than a few things said that I couldn’t fit into that column; it got pretty fascinating when I asked the assembled black public officials about President Obama. “I love my President,’ said Lawrence Browder, a chancery court clerk. “I love the man, but he’s allowed himself to be compromised by the people around him. He’s unwilling to kick butt. You know, you talk about executive orders–the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order, right?”

“I cut him some slack,” said state rep. Rufus Straughter. “He’s a Hawaiian.” I asked what that meant and Rep. Straughter responded with a story. “My grand-daddy bought a John Deere tractor in 1942 and word got around the community. One day a white guy pulls up to the house and asks about the tractor. My grand-daddy says yes, he’s got it. The white guy is amazed. He says, ‘How could you get this tractor and I can’t?'” There was a round of laughter from the 25 people in the room. “See, there was an assumption of inferiority,” Straughter concluded. “All of us had to grow up with that. The President was brought up by white people–his grandparents–in Hawaii. He never grew up with that bigotry.”

Taj Mahal was biting his lip at this point. He spent 20 years living in Hawaii. “Of course, Obama grew up with bigotry,” he told me later. “There are all sorts of cross-currents in Hawaii. There’s a Hawaiian phrase for what Obama is.” He said the phrase, but I was driving and couldn’t write it down. “You know what it means? It means ‘people who pray with their mouths closed.’ Hawaiians make a lot of noise when they pray.” And he launched into an intense and hilarious imitation of Hawaiian praying.

Taj is a great impersonator. He can do a mean Bob Dylan, an elderly Jew from his Brooklyn birthplace, a valley girl and several different varieties of Creole patois. When a Dylan song from Nashville Skyline came on, Taj said, respectfully. “That boy had to do hard work to change his voice to sing like that.” I’ve been listening to Taj for 45 years, since his great double album, “Giant Step” and “De Old Folks at Home,” the latter a combination of acoustic blues, clapping songs and chants. He went on to record an album with a tuba band and his Hawaiian group, The Hula Band, which featured more than a couple of ukeleles. More recently, he’s gone back all the way to the roots of the music, in Africa. In the midst of all this, he played with the Rolling Stones and more than a few other white superstars, who aspired to sound like him–and sold a lot of records then he did, trying.

Taj was as blown away by the Greenville town meeting as I was, especially when the folks started talking about integration. They felt suckered by it. They had abandoned their black institutions–the stores, restaurants, banks and newspapers–and rushed to patronize the whites. And they had lost their community, in the process. And here Taj could not remain silent, “Y’all built the levy,” the civil rights movement, “and then what did you do? You sat down, splayed out your legs, put your shovels across your laps and stopped digging. My grandfather”–from South Carolina–“talked about it all the time. You can’t stop building. You gotta keep at it.”

There was general agreement in the room. And I could see Taj was feeling pretty good about that. I was kind of hoping that he’d break into one of his clapping songs here…But he didn’t. He was in church with a bunch of elected officials. The next day, as we drove to New Orleans, he sang some offhand blues, but mostly he talked about how the conversation in Greenville was the eternal conversation in the black community. We had dinner in New Orleans that night with my wife, Victoria, and a lady friend of his, whom he called “Big Red.” He bought.


TIME In the Arena

The Delta Blues

Daymon Gardner for TIME Saying grace Congregants of the New Hope First Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., attend a town hall on Sept. 29

Two town meetings, two very different kinds of despair

Politics in Mississippi is still passionate, as you might expect. And it is still tragic, which shouldn’t be a surprise, either. The passion seems to be running with right-wing Tea Party sorts, who are in full rebellion against the statewide Republican Party. The tragedy is in the black community, which is permeated by a deep sense of failure; the most basic political facts of life–like the value of integration–are being questioned. During the last week of September, I attended symmetrical town meetings in Mississippi: of former Senate challenger Chris McDaniel’s extreme conservatives near Jackson and of black elected officials and educators from the counties surrounding the Delta town of Greenville.

“Men don’t follow titles,” said republican McDaniel. “They follow courage.” He was quoting from the movie Braveheart, he said, citing William Wallace–an ancestor of the largely Scots-Irish crowd of 50 or so–as played in blueface by Mel Gibson. Wallace was McDaniel’s model. He fought against the English elites, just as McDaniel was fighting against the old, pork-loving Bourbon Republican establishment, people like former governor Haley Barbour and Senator Thad Cochran, who would compromise their principles in order to get public-works projects for the state. They had stolen the primary election from him. They had allowed an alleged 40,000 Democrats (a synonym in Mississippi for African Americans) to vote in what was supposed to be a Republican primary. Cochran had won. McDaniel was challenging the result. A lawyer explained the relevant codicils to the group before McDaniel got up to speak. It was reminiscent–to me, at least–of the civil rights attorneys 50 years ago, who educated Southern blacks about their rights under the law. There was a righteous “We shall overcome” attitude in the room.

The effort is probably quixotic. Most people in the room believed that the Bourbons “controlled” the legal system. In fact, many people in the room seemed to believe they were beset by conspiracies at the federal level as well. Their solution was a strict, if slightly muddy, libertarianism–McDaniel describes himself as libertarian–on all but social issues. Laura Van Olderschelde, the president of the Mississippi Tea Party, said she didn’t feel safe to “talk about my Christian faith away from Mississippi. That’s how this country was founded, and I cannot subscribe to people who want to deny that.” This unleashed a torrent of commentary from the audience. A woman named Tricia McNulty linked liberals to “Lucifer, who has wanted the fall of man.” A firefighter named Andy Devine said that liberals were in the midst of a long-term plot to take over the schools and impose socialism. They were sneaking this through because the media diverted the public with “the rutting habits of the Kardashian sisters.”

There wasn’t any debate about any of this; there was absolute conviction. The positions were stated in matter-of-fact fashion, but there was a media-wise quality to it as well. There was no mention of African Americans. The McDaniel supporters had been accused of racism and wanted to leave no trace of that. An accountant named Vince Thornton did mention that “so many people were getting something for free,” but that was about as far as it went. “We are not going away,” said Robert Kenney, who quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer about silence being a political decision. “We fight this,” he added, meaning the struggle against the state Republicans, “until we win.”

My first day on the job, a white plantation owner killed his wife,” said Andrew Thompson Jr., the first black sheriff of Coahoma County. “I waited until 7 p.m. to arrest him because I wanted him to spend at least one night in jail. But at 10 p.m., they”–the local white business community–“opened the bank so he could post bail.” That was the way it was now: no more lynching, no more violence. The white folks had gotten clever. “It’s been a roller coaster,” Sheriff Thompson continued. “We made some progress in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of folks got elected, but we’ve lost ground the last 15 or so years, and especially since the Tea Party came along.”

The mood in the basement of New Hope First Baptist Church in Greenville was a roller coaster too. It started with anger and slowly lapsed toward despair. There was none of the lockstep certainty of McDaniel’s supporters. Something had gone very wrong in the Mississippi Delta black community, and there were an array of different explanations for it. Racism was one: Why were the white folks making all the money from the development of the 80%-black blues town of Clarksdale? Even the local Delta Blues festival–said to be the oldest in the country–was being supplanted by a white-led effort, the Mighty Mississippi Music festival, that was being supported by the business community. “If the whites aren’t running it, they don’t want to be part of it,” said Errick Simmons, a Greenville city councilman, who pointed out that the local casinos, which didn’t help out with the Delta festival, had contributed to the Mighty Mississippi, which–by the way–also featured country music.

The stories of subtle, and not so subtle, racism were compelling but insufficient. There was a piece missing, and these thoughtful people were growing uncomfortable with the increasingly obvious vacuum. The discussion really began to get lively when the Rev. Torey Bell, who said that “the system” was set up to keep blacks dependent, went a bit too far. Even the federal money that had come to upgrade the schools was a trick. “They’re putting in laptops and computers for our kids,” he said, “and they got none of that at home. They can’t comprehend that environment. It’s near impossible for them to succeed.” This was disputed by most of the older people in the room. They’d been working to secure that funding for decades. “At a certain point,” said Timaka James Jones, a clerk at the local court, “we’ve got to take some responsibility in our community too.”

I asked what had happened to the community, so famously strong during the civil rights movement. There was reluctance to answer, at first. But then it came in a rush: the rug had been pulled out from under them. They had rushed into integration and left some of their most cherished institutions in the dust. “We used to have black banks, insurance companies, bakeries, newspapers,” said Willie Bailey, a lawyer and state legislator for District 49. Now, Nelson Street–where most local black businesses were housed–was mostly deserted, except for churches, drug dealers and the famed restaurant Doe’s Eat Place. “The black church was the last institution standing, and then the [George W.] Bush Administration came along with that faith-based stuff, offering money to the churches for social programs, but they couldn’t talk politics anymore.” (I don’t know about that: more than a few black, urban pastors took the money and kept their megaphones.)

The segregated schools had been better, said Jessie Williams, who said she was the first black teacher in the newly integrated schools in the 1960s. The whites left and went to private “academies,” and the integrated public schools became sad all-black husks. The thing was, integration had enabled a lot of the best kids–those who would have been teachers and business owners–to go north. There was some resentment that they had never looked back. “Integration has been a problem,” Williams concluded, setting off a buzz in the room. “It’s the worst thing that ever happened to us,” muttered Sheriff Thompson. But he didn’t really mean that.

I’d like to thank Congressman Bennie Thompson for putting together the extraordinary group at New Hope First Baptist Church. The contrast between their candor and self-doubt and Chris McDaniel’s bold, bluefaced conservatives could not have been more striking, or more depressing. It is the difference between simplicity and complexity. The Tea Party folks believe that all they have to do is win their revolution and everything will be better. The blacks won their revolution, and lost their focus, and inherited a chimera of equality. Now they’ve got to do the hardest thing: regroup, develop new strategies and come on strong again.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/politics

TIME Joe Klein road trip

The Soul of an Old iPod

On the road with blues singer Taj Mahal

Memphis, Tenn

I was driving along from Alabama to Mississippi the other day, with my iPod on shuffle, when these three duets came in succession:

Rodney Crowell and Kris Kristofferson–My Father’s Advice

Carl Perkins and Van Morrison--Sitting on Top of the World (Van’s intensity automatically takes over any duet he attempts)

Emmylou Harris and Beck–Sin City (from the Gram Parsons tribute album Emmylou helped to organize)

Now, I know there are those among you–rational people, mostly–who will dismiss this as coincidence. But three duets in a row? Is it possible that there’s a secret presiding intelligence here, an Apple core, a Steve Jobs frippery that can discern threads of music, or rhythm, or–this gets really weird–lyrics to produce tantalizing segues? It doesn’t always happen, but it does often enough. I mean, what are the odds that in the 3422 songs I’ve loaded on, I’ll get The Rolling Stones’ cover of Love in Vain followed by Robert Johnson’s original. Yesterday, I shuffled from Sufjan Stevens’ anarchically flutey cover of The Beatles What Goes On? to Nelson Riddle’s puckishly flutey arrangement of Witchcraft for Frank Sinatra. Very subtle, that.

This, I realize, can get pretty existential pretty quickly. Do I, as a human, somehow need a ghost within the machine to order the universe for me. Over time, I’ve developed a relationship with the thing, laughing and marveling at its choices, bemoaning my fate when it sinks into a slough of despond and offers a series of the worst songs ever recorded by my favorite artists. (I know I should cull those songs, but can you mess with the received Word?) Sometimes it will forsake me, amble into randomness, Vampire Weekend followed by Sarah Vaughn. On Friday, it started playing songs from Rodney Crowell’s great album, Sex and Gasoline, sensing, no doubt, that I was having dinner with Rodney in Nashville that night. Yesterday, it was in a funk (and not a funky funk, which would have been fine) as we entered Memphis and I prayed for some blues to welcome me into town. But no, the shuffler was in a quiet mood, playing quiet and tame stuff…until we reached Beale Street, when–a miracle!–Lonny Brooks started singing about tumbling dice.

Today, the music turns live: the great Delta blues historian, singer and player Taj Mahal has joined the road trip for a couple of days. We’re headed to down the Delta to Greenville, Ms, for a town meeting with Congressman Bennie Thompson’s supporters. But first, Taj insisted, we have to stop at Lansky’s–“Clothier to the King”–to buy some shirts.

TIME 2014 Election

Shut Down in Tuscaloosa

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

“The first two questions people ask you when you move here,” said Angela Billings, “Where you from? And, you need a church?” Angela’s husband, Andy–the Ronald Reagan Professor of Communications at the University of Alabama–was the auteur of the town meeting and it was a spectacularly confusing group. Almost all were associated with the Communications Department, 3 professors and spouses, plus four students. There was also an accounting professor and a library sciences professor, a librarian, a doctor and two nurses. All of the grownups belonged to churches, except for one wiseguy who described himself as a lapsed unitarian.

Angela had been talking about what it was like to live in Alabama, a conversation that was inevitable when northerners dropped by. She and Andy were from rural Indiana and, she said, “I just love the southern culture. People–your neighbors–are really all over you. Your church is a big deal; it’s the center of your community.”

Jill Grogg, the librarian, said she wasn’t a very religious person, “but I joined because where else do you bring the casserole when you have a tornado?”

The students were more secular. Kalyn Lee, who is black, and Ben Ramos, who second generation Mexican American, were lapsing their childhood faiths. “I’m all churched out,” said Kalyn, who came from Birmingham, where the black church has a storied civil rights history. Alicia Cohen, a Latina who was adopted, has been exploring a Hispanic church. Brielle Appelbaum was proudly Jewish.

They were all very nice. Too nice, at first. We talked about race. The schools were thoroughly segregated, even the integrated ones. Stephanie and Peter Johnson were an interracial couple. They were Mormons and had three children. “It’s not easy for them,” Stephanie said. Ben Ramos affirmed that. “When I got to high school, it was the whites eating with whites and the blacks eating with blacks. There were three others who didn’t fit. Those were my friends.”

There was a passivity in the face of this restrictive atmosphere (which isn’t all that different in the north, in the few integrated schools we have). No one had any proposals to shake things up. So I turned to other issues. Not much action there, either. Two of the students, Kalyn and Brielle, began to talk about the need to have more politicians who looked like them. “It’s important that we see women holding important positions,” Kalyn said.

“Well, we have come a long way,” said Pete Johnson, Stephanie’s black husband, the accounting professor. “You can’t just dismiss the progress of the past 40 years. Not so long, only 10% of accounting students were women. Now it’s 51%”

“It’s not happening fast enough,” said Kalyn, who seemed to be getting upset with the older generation.

Brielle was frustrated, too. I asked if there were issues other than questions of “identity” that interested them. “Immigration? Foreign Policy?”

Brielle shrugged me off. “We’re not just talking about identity questions. There are issues, like abortion, that are totally related.Who gets to control my body is pretty important to me.”

And now, finally the group was engaged. Abortion was the subject. When did life begin? What about those amazing 3-d sonograms? How could you deny the life there? The conversation was mostly civil; the pro-life forces were not shouting murder! The points were nuanced…but the argument didn’t go anywhere. No minds were changed or even dented a little bit.

Finally, Jeremy Butler–the lapsed unitarian and a communications professor specializing in television said, “You know, people are just exhausted from all these crises. And all the things being said about them, and the way people talk about them. I grew up an activist, civil rights in high school, against the war in college and I’ve always kept at it. I used to love battling out the issues, but not anymore. I’m utterly exhausted by politics. Nothing comes of it. So I’ve just shut down.”

Each of the older folks began nodding their heads vehemently in agreement. “Who has time for it?” said Jill, the librarian. “I’m focused on my kids and my work. I’m trying to cook some dinners so we don’t wind up a Chick-fil-A six nights a week.”

“And nothing happens anyway,” said her husband, Jeff Weddle. “Nothing seems to get accomplished.”

This is an essential truth, ramifying and growing deeper across America. The economic and social revolutions that made it necessary and desirable for women to work, and made it hard for a male factory worker to support a family have blistered our democracy. The choices people make are, in the end, rational: sports with the kids, church on Sunday was a respite, a time to talk with friends–but it was much easier to talk about ‘Bama football, because at least you had an up or down result each week. (Almost always up, in ‘Bama’s case). It was a shame what was happening in the country politically. But what could anyone do about it? I don’t doubt that the vast majority of people feel like this; it was fairly surprisingly to find it in academia, that den of intellectual iniquity, though.

Today’s playlist:

The South was tugging hard at my iPod as I moved on from Alabama to Mississippi:

1. Master Sold my Baby –by Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears

2. I’m A Nothin’ Man–R.L. Burnside

3. Mahalia–Carolina Chocolate Drops

4. Southern Gurl–by Erykah Badu

5. Back to Tupelo–an Elvis song by Mark Knopfler

TIME Midterms

A Virtual Cycle

Joe Klein Road Trip Thom Tillis and Mark Walker
Jeremy M. Lange for TIME US Senate candidate Thom Tillis, right in blue shirt, greets and speaks to rally attendees at the Guildford County Republican Party headquarters in Greensboro, N.C. on Sept. 20, 2014.

Nobody wins when voters only experience politics second hand

Peter Tennis is an endangered species. He’s 72, lives in Marietta, Ga., and still works in commercial real estate. He’s a devout Episcopalian who insists we begin our breakfast at the OK Cafe with a prayer. He reads the newspaper every day and clips out the stories he finds interesting. A few years ago, he saw an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about a 15-year-old black kid who had been sent to adult prison for participating in an armed robbery. He started corresponding with the young man, then visited him in prison and led a group to pray for him at St. David’s Episcopal Church. He found this work so rewarding that he began contacting other prisoners he read about, visiting them in prison, helping them where he could; he corresponds regularly with “three prisoners at a time” in Georgia. There isn’t a dramatic climax to Pete’s prison work. He just does it. His wife Margot is similarly involved, teaching English to Latino adults. “I once knew a guy named Railroad Bob, pretty down and out,” Pete says. “But he said something I’ll never forget: ‘We teach best what we desperately need to learn.'”

I mention Peter and Margot Tennis because they reached out to me when they heard I was going on another of my annual road trips–this time through the South. Pete offered to organize a meeting of his friends and co-workers to talk politics with me in Marietta. That’s how these road trips work; TIME readers provide the itinerary. But a certain sort of TIME reader: Dr. Richard Merwarth, 76, in Pittsboro, N.C.–who organized a meeting for me with 200 or so senior citizens at the Galloway Ridge retirement community–is another. What Pete and Dick have in common is that they are active citizens–not activists, just people who think part of their job as Americans is to be involved in stuff. It’s probably not an accident that they’re both in their 70s: they are among a dwindling but vital minority in the country. They grew up believing that public life, including politics, was a group activity, something you share with your neighbors. That isn’t true anymore. Politics is now a virtual activity. It happens, mostly via ads, on television and the radio. That makes it a lot easier for most people: nothing is expected of them but a vote. “We just don’t do many events anymore,” a campaign manager in Georgia told me. The candidates’ time is better spent dialing for dollars. That’s nothing new, but gradually politics–and political reporting–has become an arid exercise, the tabulation of money raised and ads promulgated (and invisible phone banks microtargeting voters, which is something journalists can’t quantify). It’s hard to imagine that the Founding Fathers–who staged raucous rallies complete with beer, barbecue and juicy speeches–would recognize the process.

A politically eclectic group gathered in a bland room at the East Cobb, Ga., county offices, 25 people, mostly friends and real estate colleagues of Peter Tennis. They were mostly conservative, though not angry Tea Party sorts. There were a handful of moderate liberals, too, who weren’t as forceful as the conservatives. “Politicians just want to throw money at things,” said Jeff Marshall, 54, a recent Connecticut transplant. “I’m just not convinced that government can do all that very effectively.”

This is not an uncommon sentiment, of course. But a small-business owner named Charles Bonds, 41, put some flesh on it, regaling the group with the troubles his company, with 51 employees, was having with the Affordable Care Act. He wanted to provide health coverage and was required to under the law. But his private insurer had raised premiums 57.8%, and while the rates in the local Obamacare exchange were better for his employees individually, the law said that companies with more than 50 employees had to provide the insurance. The obvious answer was to fire two people, hire some temps and subsidize his employees to get their insurance through Obamacare. “And even if we did that, the feds require us to report which of our employees haven’t gotten health coverage–which is sort of like snitching on them.”

Eric Flamm, 58, a computer consultant, said he thought the whole idea of mandated health care was “flagrantly unconstitutional,” and he was “pessimistic about ever getting the federal government to shrink.”

The other big issue was a surprising amalgam of immigration and terrorism. Bob Wood, 72, said he was worried that the southern border was porous, that ISIS terrorists were crossing over, that the country was riddled with sleeper cells. “They’re all over the place,” he said. Several others said they were fearful of ISIS and immigrants–no accident, it turned out, since the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, a businessman named David Perdue, had just launched an ad accusing his opponent, Michelle Nunn, of supporting “amnesty” and an immigration bill that wouldn’t seal the southern border and might allow ISIS terrorists in. (The bill, which was passed with the support of 14 Republican Senators, provides “legal status” but not citizenship for undocumented workers and also would spend an additional $38 billion on increased border security.)

The Perdue ad is almost hilariously despicable. It also accuses Nunn–the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn–of “funding organizations linked to terrorists.” This allegedly occurred while she was the president of George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation. The real story is TCFP: too complicated for politics. Users of eBay were offered a list of charities to support via Points of Light. In the end, they chose to give $13,500 to a federally approved organization called Islamic Relief USA, which has “ties” to an international organization of the same name, which allegedly has “ties” to Hamas. Said Neil Bush, the chairman of Points of Light: “To attack an organization founded by my father … to smear our organization for political gains, is in my opinion shameful.” (Bush the Elder has endorsed Perdue.)

In North Carolina, a few days earlier, I attended an actual political rally. It was staged by Republicans in Greensboro and featured their U.S. Senate candidate, Thom Tillis, who wasn’t carrying a pitchfork; and neither did Mark Walker, a local minister running for Congress. “It’s sad,” Tillis said, “that we have to be this disappointed in this President.” He criticized his Democratic opponent Kay Hagan–for supporting the Affordable Care Act, diplomacy with Iran, the Senate immigration bill–with a call-and-respond line: “Is that a Senator from North Carolina?” He told his own up-by-his-bootstraps story. (Tillis started on a loading dock and didn’t get his college degree until he turned 36, but he’s been successful in business and is now the speaker of the state legislature.) “I’m optimistic about our country,” he said, running against the right-wing radio trope that the country is in the midst of an Old Testament slide toward damnation.

It sounded to me, at first, like the Republicans had wised up in 2014. They were serving up smoked brisket, not red meat. There was a rationale for this: white women are likely to be the swing group in the North Carolina and Georgia elections. Women tend not to respond to rhetorical violence. Walker, the minister running for Congress, mentioned neither gay rights nor abortion. It was, I thought, grounds for optimism about the growing climate threat of political overheating. But after I saw the Perdue ad in Georgia, I realized that I–like the lovely folks who set up my road-trip meetings–was living in a community-oriented past, where speeches and rallies meant something. Nowadays, a candidate can be all smiles and more-in-sadness-than-in-anger on the stump, and run ads that are sicker than swamp gas on television, where it really counts.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/politics


Michelle Nunn’s Public-Service Message

Correction appended: Sept. 25.

Atlanta, Ga.

We like to be a full-service road trip, sometimes even involving social mediacracy, And so…

Here’s a shout-out to TIME’s terrific economic columnist Rana Faroohar from her old Indiana high school friend Patrick Duncan!

Patrick does what sounds like complicated statistical analysis for the Coca-Cola company, except for today, He spent today putting together meals for the elderly at a very impressive not-for-profit charity called Project Open Hand, alongside several dozen other volunteers from Coke and other Atlanta companies, plus church folks and retirees. His job was to stand over a vat of pale yellow cheese and, using an ice cream scoop, deposit a glop of it on some cut up cauliflower, which was accompanied by something that looked like chili in a plastic, heatable tray that was sealed with clear-wrap down the line.

Along about 11:30 this morning, Patrick looked across the vat of cheese and found himself staring at a wraithlike, academic-looking woman, who also was depositing glops of cheese on cauliflower coming her way down a makeshift assembly line. It was Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Georgia. Now you know how this normally works: a politician deposits a glop in a photo-op and, once the picture is taken, moves on to her next event. But that’s not what happened today. Nunn stayed on the line until lunch break, chatting with Patrick Duncan about everything from life at Coke to the situation in Iraq. After it was over, Patrick said he was still undecided about who to vote for, “but the fact that she’s out here, doing this, means something.”

Most Memorable Previous Photo-Op Interlude: Michael Dukakis showed up at a candle-pin bowling alley in New Hampshire in 1988, rolled an elegant ball down the alley as photographers snapped from adjacent alleys, turned around and left, shaking some hands on the way. Four years later, Bill Clinton went to the same bowling alley, went to the locker room and came out wearing a bowling shirt. He bowled a full game, gabbing away with some of the locals. He was awful…but he was getting better as the game went on. “Let’s bowl another!” He said, gathering some more locals to join him. His staff had to drag him out of the place, but he haunted the alleys for the rest of the campaign. So, notice to wannabe politicians: actual enthusiasm counts for a lot, synthetic enthusiasm is easily detected.

Michelle Nunn has actual enthusiasm for public service projects. She’s been running them for 28 years, most recently as the director of George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation. She has done an interesting thing in her Senate campaign, staging regular service projects around the state–cleaning up playgrounds, restoring basketball courts, delivering meals. This may be something new under the sun: Seth Moulton, the Marine Captain who defeated the Democratic incumbent John Tierney in the Boston suburbs this month, organized volunteers to do service projects, too. There are those who may argue that the whole idea is hokey and just a more elaborate photo op–but public places are actually cleaned up, progress is made and the politician involved has a ready-made answer for the eternal question: What have you done for me lately?

And Also…

The drive from Atlanta to Tuscaloosa this afternoon enabled me to listen to some music and renew the road trip playlist tradition. Here are five songs my thoroughly shuffled iPod played along the way that made an impression:

1. Eva Cassidy–Oh, Had I A Golden Thread: Cassidy had one of the great voices ever, sadly gone now. This puts the instrument on spectacular display, almost knocked me off the road.

2. Lucinda Williams–Big Red Sun: Lucinda’s from Arkansas; I’ll be there next week. This is her country.

3.Bob Dylan–The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll: Bob Dylan’s withering civil rights ballad about a black hotel maid beaten to death by a wealthy customer. This was Hamilton Jordan’s favorite song. He was Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff and a stone outlaw. The fact that he loved this meant I couldn’t help but give him the benefit of the doubt and he almost always earned it. Had lunch with his son, Alex, in Atlanta the other day. Great scion.

4. Del McCoury Band–It’s Just the Night: Appalachia’s best.

5. Blind Faith–Can’t Find My Way Home: Got two weeks to go. We’ll see.


Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly referred to the non-profit as Open Hands. It is called Project Open Hand.

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