BARACK OBAMAObama the people-pleaser
We have needed the strongest democratic president in a generation and we have gotten the weakest. Letters to the Editor of the New York Times
inspired by Drew Westen's Sunday article
, "What Happened to Obama?" (Sunday Review, Aug. 7, 2011 ) outline a problem that more and more of even the president's strongest former supporters are coming to recognize: he has not been the firm, decisive leader America has needed during this difficult time. "The president has allowed events to control him, not vice versa," one writer sums up. "Barack Obama has just not been tough enough to confront the myriad transgressions of the Congressional Republicans, who have decimated our economy and our political process," states another letter. "I am heartsick about this failure to offer strong, firm and effective leadership, particularly at a time when our country so desperately needs it," the writer concludes. Another writer to the Times
expresses disappointment from the inaugural address onward. "I hadn't realized it then, but what we heard was the first of many lifeless lectures to come from the professor in chief." The president has failed to show his famed rhetorical gifts of late, and the lifelessness of his public speeches reflects his weakness in action. The writer laments the President's "passive handling of the debate over stimulus, jobs and the health public option."
Still another letter on this day focuses on what is the latest and perhaps most crucial turning point in confidence: the debut ceiling fuss, in which the Tea Party Republicans made their "narrative" more visible than the Democrats'. The writer points to a persistent criticism of the President: "Barack Obama is unwilling to identify a villain, without whom he has nothing to triumph over. Moderate Republicans face a similar challenge." The Tea Party, the letter says, showed its willingness to sink the American economy. They "are the villains here," the letter says, and "the president who is willing to say so is going to win the 2012 election." Another writer, still responding to Westen's powerful essay, says the people "elected an amateur with no record of accomplishment to the presidency," and wishes we could "reanaimate Lyndon B. Johnson."
Other letters to the Times
look for the roots of President Obama's shortcomings and find them in the experience he describes in his books, Dreams from My Father
and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
. One writer sees Obama's "centrist posture" as "an expression of a lifelong struggle to please people and make sense of what it means to be both black and white." Still another asks, "What happened to President Obama? Nothing. He is the same person he described in Dreams from My Father
, as unsure of his own identity and obsessively seeking acceptance from others, all others. But that is not the way governing and politics work."
There are deep ironies in the contrasts between Obama and George W. Bush. Bush had lackluster beginnings, but secure, patrician ones. Obama was a child of mixed race raised by a single parent, but he showed brilliance. However he may have started out and however much he relied on his posse of neocons, Bush in the White House spoke with sure tones. His posturing, macho, cowboy style was the reverse of the dry, compromising, professorial Obama. Bush's presidency was a disastrous one for America and for the world, but he went about creating his destruction with a sure hand and a firm voice. Obama creates his by dodging issues and changing sides.
Another letter in Obama's defense listing his accomplishments leaves decidedly mixed feelings. Yes, the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty strikes a positive note. Abolishing the gays-in-the-military fumble "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is an improvement -- except that it has not yet taken place. The two Supreme Court nominations may be "superb," but that remains to be seen. The "Affordable Care Act" is a disappointment for all who wanted it because it lacks the one essential feature, a public option, and how much it may still be undermined by conservatives in Congress remains to be seen. The letter-writer cites the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform, but that is evidently a failure. The same things are happening again. Three years later, the front page headline of this same issue of the Times
is "Financial Turmoil Evokes Comparison to 2008 Crisis." The Dodd-Frank reform is a hollow accomplishment. The writer cites a "restored" Environmental Protection Agency under Lisa Jackson and a "restored" Justice Department under Eric Holder. These changes show Obama is not Bush, but it's not enough to be not Bush. Too many Bush-era practices, especially under Justice, are continuing, or being augmented. The "effective" secretary of state represented by Hilary Rodham Clinton is obviously not carrying out the policies of Bush either, but she represents the same kind of hubristic and imperialistic posturing that have characterized American foreign policy. Finally, the writer lists "the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden." But whether that raid was "successful" depends on whether anything positive comes of it, such as an end to the scare-mongering "war on terror" (like the counter-productive "war on drugs") and withdrawal from Afghanistan. But Afghanistan on the contrary is Obama's pet war, it would seem -- though he has greatly stepped up attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere as well. Given the overwhelming problems that still face the country, these "accomplishments" seem very much a mixed bag.
Whatever Obama has so far achieved, whether he is still the leader people voted for with such enthusiasm or has now become a Democrat manqué or simply not-Bush, or even Bush-lite, the biggest issues a liberal president must confront in America and the world today remain disturbingly unresolved, and one could even say unconfronted. Above all there is the economy. Obama is flunking Economics 101. He has fed the public a series of lies and misconceptions about what the economy now requires and how it functions at the federal level. He has failed to recognize the need to float debt to achieve stimulus and to create jobs. He has failed to assert that revenue must be produced both to revive the economy and to reduce the deficit. Led by extremist ideologues, Congress has been engaged in an insane charade about financial non-issues, and the president has been held hostage by this, allowing "events to control him, not vice versa." He has made debt and deficit that chief targets at a time when they should be set aside in favor of reducing unemployment and getting the economy going again. The public strongly feels this. Many economists have been saying it over and over. And Obama instead has been listening to and seeking to placate the Republican right. In doing this he is perhaps pleasing people in Washington, but he is not pleasing the electorate. One thing about Bush: he knew his "base" and how to give it what it wanted. But Obama's supporters feel abandoned by him. The people-pleaser who has no true center runs into trouble eventually, because he winds up creating enemies among his original friends. And then the man who wanted to be everybody's friend is left standing alone, the friend of no one.