GET BOLD, BARACK
I know that expressing disappointment in Obama is getting tedious but I couldn't agree more with Roger Cohen's assessment.
Get Bold, Barack
By ROGER COHEN
via NY Times
WASHINGTON — I was among the early and strong supporters of Barack Obama. America was stuck and it seemed to me he could take the country forward into the 21st century, which began so tragically in downtown New York and here in the nation’s capital. Like many, at midterm, I’m struggling with my disappointment.
I’ve asked myself: Would Hillary Clinton, experienced and attuned to blue-collar America, have been stronger and more capable of lifting the national mood? I’ve thought to myself: Is it unfair to feel this disillusionment given the scale of Obama’s inherited problems? And I’ve wondered, given the visceral disrespect for the president from the Tea Party — a foul scorn full of innuendo that skirts the boundaries of racism — whether Obama could have done anything to reach across the aisle?
To all these questions, at different times, I’ve had different answers. No, says one voice, get over it, he’s doing the best he could to lift America from the double whammy of war and economic meltdown. He’s smart and curious — and, anyway, just consider the mystical-nationalist-insular alternative.
Oh yeah, says another, he’s too cool a customer, a beguiling construct more than flesh and blood, an empty vessel for a misplaced idealism, a politician averse to pressing the flesh (and what else is politics?), a man who — not for nothing — tilts his chin upward when he speaks.
Back and forth go the voices, but there’s no getting away from the disappointment. This president feels flat — and somehow not quite genuine. He should place above his bed the words of Jonathan Alter: “Logic can convince but only emotion can motivate.”
On arriving in New York from London, I went to a party on the Upper East Side. It was a well-heeled crowd, almost all Obama supporters a couple of years back. “The guy’s a phony,” one guest said. “We need a Bloomberg, somebody who can manage,” said another, referring to the billionaire mayor of New York. “All this Clinton nostalgia, it’s because Obama is a loner, not interested in people,” said a third.
I was a struck by how people aren’t sure where Obama’s headed. There’s no narrative to the presidency. It was about believable change. Now the president seems less a passionate change agent than a careful calculator unsure of his core beliefs. In London, you know what Prime Minister David Cameron is about: rowing back the state and slashing the deficit. Agree or disagree, there’s a narrative. It helps.
Another foreign leader came to mind, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, now about to leave office after an extraordinary presidency. Here are two outsider politicians with lullaby-like names and the kinds of faces not previously seen on their nations’ banknotes, breaking molds of race or class. But there the resemblance ends.
Lula proved all of a piece — one of eight children from the impoverished far north of Brazil, a former steelworker who repaired social fracture in one of the world’s most unequal societies. Obama has so far failed that critical authenticity test.
There was an anti-establishment frisson to Obama, the black man who battled to overcome prejudice and America’s “original sin” to win the nation’s highest office. Yet he has revealed himself as an elite product of America’s elite schools, a politician who built his image with great intelligence but shows little taste for the nitty-gritty. Bipartisanship, when it’s not just oratory, begins with small gestures.
I was talking to a Democratic Party donor, a Kansas City businessman. He said he’s given over $30,000 to Obama — and not a word of thanks. He was irritated. Lots of people think this president is too smug to write thank-you notes or make quick courtesy calls.
After the inevitable midterm defeat, Obama needs to make some decisions. He’s stuck on the 20-yard line in domestic and foreign policy. The facile attacks on “fat-cat bankers” have to end. They don’t convince the left and they infuriate the right. Prosecute, by all means, but don’t rail. And remember that Americans get good housekeeping in the end. One $787 billion fiscal injection is enough.
Americans are trying to de-leverage. They’ll follow a president who says extending tax cuts for the rich is madness. They might buy a consumption tax. But the president has to lead.
Obama is confronting an international conviction that he’s hesitant. The agonizing review that led to the Afghan surge left an impression of uncertainty. In the end we got what some have called the Groucho Marx Hello, I Must be Going! plan, a brief reinforcement to be reversed in time for the 2012 campaign. In the Middle East, too, domestic politics have trumped change, with resulting equivocation and familiar paralysis.
Boldness characterized Obama’s campaign; only that will get him re-elected in 2012. He needs to invigorate his team with doers rather than thinkers. He needs to become serious about balancing the budget. He needs a foreign policy that reflects a changed world not a churlish Congress.
And he must admit to himself that perhaps the disappointed are not misguided but rational, even scientific — words he likes.