You can read this series from the beginning here.
"You know what the problem is," Carl said.
"Curry-to-naan ratio," I said. Carl and I both liked the same Indian vegetarian place. It was close to the office when we needed a change from brown-bag lunches at our cubicles. The food was decent, but they had some work to do on portion-sizing.
"Besides that. Look, what we’re really all about is expanding the scope and size of government, right?"
"That’s kind of reductivist of you," I said. "We’re about implementing pragmatic, scientifically-tested solutions on a national level to achieve income equality and social justice. Expanding government is just the best tool for accomplishing that."
"Yeah yeah yeah," Carl said. "Whatever. It’s still vital to have a strong central government, and to keep the Republicans from doing away with it."
"Goes without saying," I said.
"When people look at the government, though, they see a faceless monolith, right? Like, you look at the Defense Department, and what do you see? The Pentagon. Huge, imposing, brutalist."
"You’re saying the Defense Department needs a makeover?" I asked. "Maybe it can go to a spa, get a massage and a facial, too."
"It’s not just Defense," Carl said. "We don’t see any of the agencies as, you know, being human. Like, right now, which agency is having the hardest time of it?"
"Probably the VA," I said.
"Good choice," he said. "So there’s the question. How do you humanize the VA? How do you make it more… I don’t know what the word is."
"Anthropomorphic," I said.
"Precisely. Precisely. So what you do, maybe, is have a comic book. And the hero is the VA. Or it’s a guy in a costume who kind of represents the VA. And he’s got a big shield to ward off Republicans who try to take away his funding."
"Maybe he’s in a wheelchair to represent veterans with disabilities," I added.
"Sure! Sure! So Mr. VA Guy is under attack, and he’s able to fight it off, but his power gets drained, and he’s unable to help the veterans like he should be doing."
"And then the virtuous Dr. HHS swoops in with a binder full of Obamacare regulations and saves the day. I get it, Carl, but I don’t know what you can do with it."
"Maybe he’s not a guy in a wheelchair, then," Carl said. "Maybe he’s a bear."
"The Forest Service already has a bear," I pointed out. "Maybe you can borrow him. ‘Only you can prevent long wait times in VA clinics.’"
"You’re not getting it," Carl said. "Okay, listen. You know how they’re saying that the next Thor is going to be a woman? All these conservatives are sniping at Marvel about it on Twitter."
"You say so," I said. I was going to tell him how the hyper-masculine construct of Thor was an unconscious attempt to reinforce patriarchal standards, but I didn’t want Carl to think I was stupid or anything.
"So in this cartoon, okay, Thor is a woman. But she’s going to be a strong woman, with a magic hammer, who fights evil."
"With you so far," I said.
"Why can’t the superhero be weak? Why can’t Thor, or whatever you want to call it, be a weak woman? You know, someone with a drug addiction, who dropped out of high school, and is living on the streets?"
"Wouldn’t make much of a comic book," I said.
"But you could have superheroes who intervene to help her," Carl said. "Department of Labor Man gets her some job training. Obamacare-Man gets her health insurance and addiction counseling. HUD-Woman gets her affordable housing. And then she becomes a superhero at the ballot box, voting for Democrats to continue the services she’s getting."
"That’s utterly inspired or utterly dopey," I said. "The only problem is I can’t tell which."
"Weakness is the key," he said. "Weakness is underrated. Strength is overrated. We need to show people there’s power in weakness."
"How do we do that?" I asked.
"I don’t know."
The intern briefing the next morning was more subdued than usual. Part of it might have been the latest downturn in the President’s approval rating. Part of it might have been the ungodly heat that makes Washington such a difficult place to be in the summer. Part of it might have been that the organization’s finances were starting to affect the coffee and pastries budget. The last one didn’t affect me so much, as I bring in my own fair-trade coffee and homemade veggie crisps, but it was clear that intern morale was down a bit.
I was counting on Polly to give us all a pep talk, but she seemed as subdued as everyone else. "Good morning," she said. "Today we’re pushing back on the idea that the President is aloof and uninterested in the problems our country is facing."
The discontent in the intern ranks materialized into audible groans. I thought I heard some hissing from someone in the back. "I know, I know," Polly continued. "The optics have not been that great recently, with that pool hall stuff and everything. The Administration has brought this on itself, and it’s up to us to try to bail them out."
The groaning morphed into world-weary sighing. "Stop it, you guys," Polly said. "I understand. You wanted hope, you wanted change, and if you still want that, we have to work for it. What that means is that we support the White House, and that means that we push back."
"How do we do that?" someone asked.
"The tagline we’re getting from the White House is that the bear is loose. So that’s what we’re going with. It has certain advantages. Bears are powerful and strong and untamed, and that’s what we want the President to be."
"Even if he’s just playing pool while Rick Perry is stopping orphaned children from crossing the border?" Carl asked.
"Why not? He’s a bear. Bears do what they want. Bears don’t need approval from Republicans to do anything. It’s a powerful image, and we can get it across. More than that, I think there’s a way we can leverage the whole thing. Does anybody else see how?"
"Like, if the Republicans portray him as a black bear?" someone asked.
"Precisely," Polly said. "Now you’re seeing the big picture. All it takes is for one cartoonist to show Obama as a black bear to reinforce the point that Obama’s critics are motivated by racism. So be vigilant. Watch for them to slip up, and then hit them hard."
"What if they show him as a polar bear?" I asked.
"Then turn the conversation towards Republican efforts to block climate change legislation. Okay? Use your imaginations, people. It’s our most important weapon. The bear is loose, and if we want to help the bear, then we have to let him be a bear. Got it? Get to work."
I went over to Carl’s cubicle after the intern orientation broke up. "At least you were on the right track with the bear thing," I said.
"It’s all wrong," Carl said. "The President isn’t a bear. Bears are strong. Obama is weak. The bear thing is a way for him to appear strong when he’s not. It’s a lie and a cheat."
"The President is the leader of the free world," I said. "He can’t show weakness."
"Why is that, exactly? He is weak. It’s more honest to portray him that way. If we show that he’s weak, people will be motivated to help him be strong again. There’s so much power in weakness, potentially, if he’s willing to harness it.. Make it work for him. Do you know what I mean?"
"I don’t know," I said. "It’s not an attractive quality."
"Weakness is what underpins all of collectivist thought. We’re all weak, man. You know that? We’re all powerless, when you get right down to it. Obama is, too. He needs help. He needs us. And it needs to be something more powerful than just using memes and stuff for people to share on social media. Anyway, something to think about there, Justin."
I did think about it. What did it mean for a charismatic, progressive President to be weak? Did that mean that progressive ideals were somehow weak? Did it mean that by making the government stronger and more powerful, that the country in some way was becoming weaker? Was there some insidious weakness at the heart of what I believed?
I took a sip of fair trade coffee, cracked my knuckles, and checked to see if the Manchester Union-Leader had any cartoons showing the President as a bear. If I had been weak before, I wasn’t going to be any longer. I decided to redouble my commitment to fairness and social justice. I was going to be a bear on the loose from now on.