Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Yes, We Might! Will the Real Barack Obama Please Stand Up?

If there’s one thing everybody can agree on, it’s who they think President Barack Obama is. It’s as obvious as the nose on your face. He’s an elitist, fascist, socialist who hates white people (especially white men), is embarrassed by America, wants to redistribute your wealth and is into reparations and social justice, that is when he isn’t rewriting the Constitution to suit his agenda. And, oh yeah, he was born in Kenya. Yep, that just about nails it. Case closed.

Except, well, seems there’s this other group who believes he is a corporatist sellout who betrayed his principles, made backroom deals with Wall Street, the Insurance and Pharmaceutical lobbies, the Pentagon and former Bush Administration officials to get watered-down legislation passed that resulted in little, if any, change to the status quo, and continued the failed policies of the previous administration. He ran on change and instead became part of the same corrupt Washington culture, and, in the process, alienated much of his base. OK, now the case is closed.

Except, well, seems there’s yet another group that sees him as the consummate pragmatist who, once he realized the gravity of the situation he was in, made a series of calculated decisions to sacrifice whatever political capital he had to get as much done as quickly as possible in order to stabilize a dangerously precarious economy through bailouts, stimulus programs, and reforms to both the healthcare and financial systems. While far from ideal, they nonetheless improved things and mitigated the systemic damage. He is perceived as highly intelligent, but aloof and lacking any sense of empathy. His inability to connect with the average voter has cost him dearly. Now the case is closed, right?

Well almost. You see, there’s one big problem. It seems all three of these groups exist simultaneously and fervently believe theirs is the real take on President Obama, and no, this isn’t some science fiction show in which Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock discover two alternate universes encroaching on the real one, and they have to find a way to save the real one, but first they have to find out which one is real, for if they fail and guess wrong all civilization will be lost. Nor is this some episode of “To Tell the Truth” in which Kitty Carlisle asks all three contestants a series of probative questions to ascertain the identity of the “real” Obama group.

No, it’s a lot worse than that, for the problem is that all three groups present accurate takes on Obama. Now, before you go off the deep end and start calling me names, let me just say right up front that I don’t, for a moment, believe that Obama is an elitist, fascist, socialist who hates America and hails from Kenya. It’s absurd to insinuate, much less state, that he fits any of those criteria. Unfortunately, in the political world, perception is everything, hence the Marxist persona tag.

And that is the problem for Obama. He has become the president with multiple personalities. Like Donny and Marie, he’s a little bit rock and roll, a little bit country, and, for good measure, a little bit of soul. You get all three, and, best of all, you get to choose which one you like. You can hate him, be disillusioned by him or just feel indifferent. You decide. You get to go home with your own personal Obama doll, complete with its own personal narrative attached.

And all this because almost two years in to his administration, this “transformative” president still has not defined his own narrative; still has not put his own stamp on what kind of man he is and what he wants to accomplish during his term. Who is he: a menace, a sellout or a dealmaker? That is the sixty-four thousand dollar question that millions of Americans still can’t answer definitively.

Of course the fact that millions of Americans should have to figure out who their president is and what he stands for speaks volumes as to his inability to formulate a clear and precise message and effectively market it. It has been his number one failing since he took the oath of office; so much so that it now threatens more than just his administration, it threatens the entire country.

Never have the political and economic stakes been this high and the risk so grave. To have a sitting president with such a political vacuum swirling around him, given the current climate, is the recipe for a perfect storm, which could well envelope the whole nation. His own party is running from him like the plague and the opposition party is sizing him up like a side of beef at a butcher shop. And even when presented with a platform to finally articulate what his plans are for the next two years, he spent most of his interview with 60 Minutes behaving like the student who got schooled by the older bullies.

Tell the truth, would you be intimidated by this president if you were John Boehner, Eric Cantor or Mitch McConnell? Didn’t think so. Never in the history of American politics has a president been so dissed without so much as even the hint of pushback. When Joe Wilson shouted out “You Lie!” to Obama last year, why on Earth did he not call him out on it? Why was it left to so many others to do his bidding? Why, after almost two years, are the training wheels still on for a man who is pushing 50 and almost halfway through what he believes will be his first term as president?

It is astounding to contemplate that the leader of the free world hasn’t the testicular fortitude to stand his ground and challenge his opponents to cross his line in the sand. It is one thing to seek common ground and reach consensus; it is quite another to forfeit one’s own leverage. In sales we have a saying, “Anyone can give away the merchandise.” For far too long, Barack Obama has given away the merchandise, has ceded his ground, and has lost whatever foothold he once had courtesy of the most lopsided election in generations.

Whether he can ever regain his “mojo” or ends up becoming yet another example of over significance triumphing over substance will rest squarely on what he decides to do in the coming months. Boehner and McConnell will attempt to do to him what Newt Gingrich attempted to do with Bill Clinton: run him ragged. Clinton bent but never broke. As a result, the GOP blinked and Clinton was reelected. The same was true for Harry Truman after his 1946 midterm fiasco. Two years later he narrowly defeated Thomas Dewey.

Getting one’s butt kicked in politics is nothing new; in fact, it’s a time-honored tradition. It’s not the butt kicking that matters, but rather how one reacts to it that defines a man and a president. But then, there’s that word again: define. It has become for Obama the ultimate four-letter word that he can’t bring himself to own. But it’s a word he must conquer if he expects to survive and thrive over the next two years in office. If he can’t, the only definition that will matter will be “one-term Obama.”

No comments: