Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Whither Obama

Like many progressives these days, I am disappointed that President Obama hasn't put the Republicans in a half-Nelson and wrestled them to the ground.  I have my own ideas about why this has happened--or not happened.  If only we had faced the mundane problems that any nation faces, I believe Obama would have proved to be a good President, with the potential of becoming a great one.  Sadly, too much went wrong: the disastrous economy, the oil spill, the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Had he even been able to focus on just one of these, things might be quite different, but he faced a trifecta of catastrophes. 

But the problem is not simply the bad luck of unfortunate events.  Obama's real "problem" is that he's too nice, too reasonable, and finally too conciliatory.  In most circumstances these would be admirable qualities, but a President needs to be more of a Bobby Knight and less of a cheerleader.  I cringe whenever I hear him say, "I am responsible...."  For a less-than-perfect oil clean-up, for wars he didn't start, for an economy he didn't create.  When Harry Truman said, "The buck stops with me," he was being fiesty.  When FDR said, "I welcome their [Republicans'] their hate," he was not cowering in fear of "mis-speaking" or shilly-shallying.  Obama seems to want to follow in those stalwart's footsteps, but his feet aren't quite big enough. 

I desperately hate to say this, but I fear that race may be an issue here.  I have no doubt that Obama is capable of strong speech and a calculated show of temper, but I sense his reluctance to be perceived as anything other than a reasonable black man who is non-threatening.  I am thrilled we have a black President.  Michelle Obama is right to be proud of America for that reason, if not for that reason alone.  But the President seems to be trying too hard to be the Sidney Poitier of politics.  He's the "guess who's coming to dinner" black man who is so perfect no one can fault him, at least not for his manners.  I appreciate his desire to set the tone in Washington, to make a space for reasoned discourse and respectful disagreement.  Unfortunately, his enemies refuse to play that game.  These Republican bullies, like bullies everywhere, zero in on the nice kid in the class.  And the sad thing is, the bullies often win.  I wish it were otherwise; I wish intelligence, morality, and compassion came out on top every time, but the truth is, bullies usually get away with it.  It saddens me to think that our first black President may be seen as one of our weakest, not because he is a weak man, but because he is a nice one.

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