No More Questions

A punctuation suggestion for Bob Herbert

Here’s the thing about questions. They can be mere requests for information, or they can serve to cast doubt. In today’s column, Bob Herbert uses the question’s second function to express anxiety about the president-elect’s slowly forming administration.

Will this new Obama team, as brilliant as it appears to be, begin addressing on day one the interests of those who are not rich and who have not had the ear of those in power?

I think about the cops and firefighters and factory workers and schoolteachers and hospital aides and bank tellers and truck drivers who are having trouble making ends meet, hanging onto their homes, sending their children to college.

Will this new administration really be looking out for them?


I want to know who in the Obama administration will be listening to the young girl on the South Side of Chicago whose future is constrained by a lousy public school, and the factory worker in Toledo whose family’s future has been trampled by unrestrained corporate greed and unfair trade policies.

The thing is, I know Bob Herbert. Okay, well, I don’t know him, but based on reading his columns for the past year, I feel pretty comfortable saying that Herbert supported Obama and that Herbert actually believes that Obama will address the needs of poor Americans.

The crux of Herbert’s argument is that Obama’s administration is composed of Washington insiders who “are encased in a bubble that makes it extremely hard to hear the voices of those who aren’t already powerful themselves.” He praises them for being “competent and smart as hell” but wonders if they’ll work for the little guy.

The idea unsaid, but felt in Herbert’s column is that Obama didn’t choose unexpected, everyday, Joe Six-Pack type folks to help him run his government. Why else cast cautious, but insubstantial doubt upon smart, competent people? Again, I’m pretty sure that Herbert doesn’t actually believe that Obama’s administration would neglect poor Americans just because not one of them fits the mythic “common sense trumps experience” approach to government. And, lastly, it seems odd to worry that Obama, who worked as a community organizer and who campaigned on a transformative message, will suddenly forget the country’s needy. Come on, Bob!

This is a tangled web. Presumably, Herbert wouldn’t have supported Obama in the first place if he didn’t believe that his administration would help the neediest Americans. What’s more, Herbert doesn’t suggest that Obama’s team isn’t qualified, and he’s not writing to ridicule their expertise as elitism. He just wants to highlight the fact that those in the lowest income brackets will be hit hardest in this recession, and that the next administration needs to give them the same time and consideration given to automakers.

But, Herbert should have articulated this point as a missive, thereby handing a task-list to Obama and his team. “You should look out for the cops and the firefighters” and “you should listen to the young girl on the South Side of Chicago.”

By shifting to the assertive “should…,” Herbert would avoid the uncertainly of speculation inherent in the doubting “will…?” There’s no question that the new administration must consider those hurting the most as it handles this financial crisis. Instead of posing weak questions, Herbert would do better demanding solutions.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.