Obama’s Pragmatic Problem (May 19, 2010)

Barack Obama...President Barack Obama speaks about combat troop levels in Iraq as he addresses military personnel at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., Friday, Feb. 27, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

 

I want to state unequivocally from the outset that I am a huge supporter of President Obama and his work since taking the oath of office in January of 2009. The argument could reasonably be made that he inherited one of the finest messes that ever faced an incoming Executive, and for the most part, I believe he has acquitted himself with the thoughtful grace and deliberation that his predecessor, the “Bring ‘em on!” cowboy himself, George W. Bush, could never muster. There is much to be admired with Obama, and he has commanded my respect as a leader. I would not be the one to make the decisions he has thus far – stimulus, bailouts, health care, etc. – but I am glad someone did. I feel, for the first time since 2001, that we are in good hands, even if the national landscape remains an overgrown mess in need of some serious weeding.

Yet recently an inkling has begun to wash over me that Obama is losing a war right here at home that is as critical to his domestic agenda as any policy his think tank could develop – and that would be the public relations war. We read the same results in poll after poll. Folks like Obama personally, but judge him to be “professorial,” “intellectual” and “too deliberate.”

Such a paradox. On the one hand, we desire a level-headed leader who can soothe us in times of crisis. But on the other hand, the red blooded American public also wants passion and plenty of it – just don’t go overboard, a la Howard Dean. It’s a delicate balance for sure, but in my estimation, there are some recent issues where I would have preferred to see less analysis and more knee jerk emotion. I get the feeling at times that Obama’s “people” are so busy managing his image that they forget why we voted for him.

The White House response to the Gulf Oil spill comes to mind. While I understand that shouting down BP executives on a daily basis does nothing to resolve the crisis, I believe that Obama’s calm and cool demeanor represents a missed opportunity to harness the national anger to effect change – i.e. FINALLY doing something about our dependence on foreign oil. It was gratifying to read in this morning’s New York Times that no less a personage than Tom Friedman is with me on this one.

I am no fan of the Tea Party and find myself at odds with them on nearly every policy issue, but I readily believe that one of the reasons they have succeeded in connecting with the American people so palpably and quickly, is that their strategists cannily understand and tap into the way that anger and desperation can foment revolt. It’s one of the principles this great nation was founded upon. Mr. Obama, the former Constitutional lawyer, should know this better than anyone, but is failing to use this phenomenon to advantage.

So after much consideration, I am left with this assessment:

1. Obama = fair and balanced, measured and temperate

BUT

He often appears unrelatable – so contrary to the image of Citizen Obama, the candidate. And at the risk of sounding the complete cynic, I wonder if making the most logical decisions necessarily means making the best ones. Does his team even care about the difference? Or are they just trying to manage the returns of the November mid-term elections? This short term strategy is disappointing, and not what Obama supporters were after.

Another example from late last week: the issue of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s sexuality. Instead of rushing to squash the rumor, ask yourself Mr. President, and the American public simultaneously, why the hell it should matter? Most people don’t have an answer to this question that doesn’t clumsily fall out of their mouths as they mutter about “family values.” Become the Obama you once were, the one who when asked if he inhaled while smoking marijuana as a college student, nonchalantly replied, “I thought that was the point.” The question was never posed again.

2. Tea Party = fringe, hooking to the right, highly emotional

BUT

They have captured the cultural zeitgeist in a way that the overly messaged Obama administration has not. This truth is reflected in Obama’s poll numbers as well as this week’s House and Senate primary elections. Rand Paul is in. Harry Reid, the unpopular Senate majority leader from Nevada is hanging on by a thread. Enough said.

I sincerely hope the Tea Party does not confuse their recent victories with a “mandate” as some of their members have suggested, but all the same, the American people and the White House would be making a mistake to dismiss them as a passing trend. They do have something to teach Obama that could make him a better, stronger more effective leader.

Anger and disaffection, when wielded incorrectly, can be destructive. However, when harnessed and channeled in the right direction, emotions can act as an impetus to bring about “change we can believe in.”

Mr. President, we are still “fired up and ready to go.” Are you?

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