Thursday, August 11, 2011
It's not a standoff if you begin to stand down before you've really stood up. We desperately need to be seeing a lot more of our President right now. That is to say, we need to be seeing much more of the version of the man we thought we elected, and much less of the man we have increasingly begun to suspect that he actually is. That's what frightens me: the identity issue. Did somebody catch their forty winks next to a pod on inauguration night?
It's not just the number of press conferences he holds, or how many interviews he sits for; it's also the tone of those appearances, and the behind-the-scenes "negotiations" which thoroughly misunderstand both the dynamics of the game and the role of a leader. In the context of recent negotiations, he seems to have neglected what I would call Rule Number One: NEVER make concessions to bullies and expect them to compromise in return. They will always view it as a simple victory, another validating stamp for their superior position, and keep trying to push you even further. To the bully, it scans as weakness. If you don't seize the discursive field decisively with such people, you will never gain any control over the flow of play. And as our leader, if you let them play you, you've let them play us.
It has been said—and I suspect there's something to the notion—that not even the President can change the public's mind if it's already made up. But he ought to be able to at least get out in front when public opinion is squarely in his corner—surely that couldn't be construed as going beyond his brief. (Minimally, this means immediate job-oriented stimulus and letting the "dumb then and dumber now" Bush tax cuts for the oligarchs mercifully expire.) And were he to make a valiant and concerted effort to that end, he would almost certainly find that even his enemies would accord him a grudging respect. To be fair, that is why we hired him. The idea is to move the ball as far as humanly possible, with the passion and eloquence that becomes a leader, in the direction you believe to be right—before you begin negotiating. But his tentativeness makes us question both his commitment to his position and his resolve--two things you don't want to have up in the air when you come to the table.
It takes a lot of strength and inner intensity, not to mention resilience, to hold such a line. There's no shame in not possessing these qualities; you just don't want to be the guy running the ball if you lack them. Charisma and deep intelligence will not suffice without the fierce courage of your convictions. That courage tends to work even when those convictions are misplaced; it becomes even more critical when the convictions are arrived at rationally and thoughtfully, and when the world is in crisis mode.
Obama's greatest asset, given his rhetorical skills, is his pulpit. If he is hoping that the GOP will overplay their hand and leave him ahead at the end of next year, well, then I fervently hope that he's right about that. I fear that will not be the case. And I pointedly question any decision to rely on that sort of too-clever legerdemain rather than stepping out in front and nailing his theses to the church door. One of your most powerful perquisites, when you hold the office of President, is that it offers you the opportunity to establish a new frame, a new narrative. Sure, your natural enemies will oppose you vociferously—that's what they're there for—but they aren't the POTUS. And don't think that they (and everybody else) don't know that too! Unless you, yourself, forget...
Obama is the greatest campaigner I've ever seen. I will always love the man, come what may. But my esteem for him as an advocate for America is dwindling by the hour. I am ashamed that he seems so constitutionally averse to making enemies, because effective leadership so often demands just that—and because the nature of your enemies can be just as telling as that of your friends. Calculating a clever strategy is also important, as far as it goes. But if, in the clutch, that strategy does not involve getting out in front powerfully and decisively to oppose those who are pushing in the wrong direction, and staying there with his jaw set and his back unbowed, then He. Is. No. Leader. He may be a lot of splendid and charming things, but if he lacks that iron will and that sense of moment when the moment is dire, then he lacks what the moment requires.
I'm afraid it's time to step up or step off. A lot of lives and livelihoods depend on it. I believe he that can do it, but that's not the point, is it?. He needs to do it now—because while we have already lost much, we could always lose much, much more.