Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Obama Paradox

The Obama Paradox-Climbing The Wall of Rejection

I am about to spend most of the next one thousand words criticizing President Obama, all without discussing one iota of policy, but first I wanted to tell a personal story.

About thirty-five years ago, through a very odd series of coincidences and busted plans, I found myself strolling around Manhattan with a beautiful French woman who, until that afternoon, was also a complete stranger.

We had a terrific time. She had this ridiculously charming accent and laugh.  It was a stunner of an early autumn day, and we just wandered aimlessly and took it all in. At one point we stopped and, having bought too much pastry for two people, found a bench in Central Park and gorged ourselves silly. We ended up on Fifth Avenue, and, as the wind had started to pick up a little, I gave her my blazer. 

What happened next is something I’ve never been able to forget.  An older woman, seeing this, looked back and forth between the two of us, shook her head vigorously, and then glared at me.  My companion may have been charming and beautiful and educated, but she was, quite clearly, also of at least part African ancestry.  And my completely harmless gesture of offering my jacket was just too intimate--I had crossed a barrier and broken a taboo.

Before you come to the conclusion that I’m about to tell you that all the opposition to President Obama is race-based, I’m not.  Kennedy faced serious doubts about his Catholicism, Mitt Romney his Mormon faith, and I’m sure the first serious Jewish or Hispanic candidate will also find an undercurrent of rejection from a segment of the population.  JFK and Obama won, and Romney was close, which just underscores that in a culture like ours, those willing to give everyone a fair hearing more than overwhelm the percentage of haters.  

But, what I am saying is that Barack Obama would have had to be a fool not to realize that there were people (including some in his own party) who weren’t going to be able to abide him being President because of who he was.  And when you add the far greater number of people who won't accept him as President because of what party he belongs to, his climb up the wall of public rejection was going to be that much steeper.  

His problems weren’t going to stop with the electorate.  Just five years before, he was only an Illinois State Senator.  He had served one term in the United States Senate, and, on the wings of his extraordinarily golden tongue, had vaulted over every other politician in the country to somehow, almost absurdly, become President of the United States. Washington is not known for its shortage of ego, and the reality of having the baseball equivalent of a high school fast-baller suddenly start and win four games of the World Series caused a lot of heads to do an “Exorcism” spin. John McCain has never gotten over it.

No matter how heady his triumph, he should have known walking in the door that there were a lot of really angry people who would be delighted to see him fall flat on his face. And he should have worked harder--far harder, to build bridges, find allies, schmooze, tamp down fires, soothe, cajole, appoint, and even bribe some of the opposition.  There’s a very good chance that many would have told him to jump in the lake anyway (I’m being discreet in my choice of language) but some of them might have taken him up on the offer.  Sow a little, and maybe, you can reap a little.

Obama had to raise his game, but he missed the signs. Perhaps others would have as well.  Not only had he won a decisive victory, but the Democrats also made major gains in the House and got to 60 in the Senate.  Felt like a mandate, and Pelosi and Reid carried the water for him and insulated him from the realities of Congress. Still, a really farsighted leader, aware of his own unique vulnerabilities, would have not only made friends in his own party, but also seen that a point of maximum Republican weakness was the very time to reach out a hand.  Maybe they would have slapped it aside, but the opportunity was lost.  He forgot the most basic rule of political physics—if you bring your opponent close enough to spit in your face, he’s also close enough to splatter himself.  Helps keep things dry.

Why didn’t he? Part of Mr. Obama’s problem was that he hadn’t had a lot of practice.  Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, writing about the surprisingly contested governors races in otherwise partisan Kansas and Hawaii, made an observation that might be particularly apt for Mr. Obama’s current difficulties: "To understand the difference between the gubernatorial contests and the Senate races, just remember the basic distinction between the two offices: governors act and achieve while senators talk and vote."

To put it more bluntly, Senators only have to talk about doing things; governors actually have to get them done. Presidents are governors on speed, with everything orders of magnitude more complex, more treacherous, and potentially of existential import. Being a Senator, and even a great candidate, is not necessarily the same skill set.

And, there’s a central fallacy we all indulge in when talking about the President.  He may be “the most powerful person on Earth” but that’s all he is, a person.  He’s not Superman.  He can’t run around making peace in the Middle East and Ukraine, stopping forest fires, easing droughts, turning back a hurricane, and doing it all before breakfast.  He doesn’t get a shiny new “Iron Man” suit with the latest bells and whistles.  Instead, he has to climb into a Rube Goldberg contraption that lurches and burps and stalls and still smells of the last occupant.

A President has to make that contraption work. That means picking good policies, getting them enacted and implemented, and choosing good people to run his departments and telling them what his expectations are.  And it means going down to the boiler room of Congress, and stroking the greasy mechanics in made-to-measure suits who know very well that all it takes is one spanner in the wrong place, and the whole machinery grinds to a halt.  And every one of those esteemed folk carries several in their pocket.

How did Obama do? On policy and appointments, all Presidents have their hits and their misses.  I could tick off consequential failures in every past Administration and countless Cabinet members who were eased (or shoved) out the door.  Obama is no different, and with the passage of time, I think his record in this area will be judged as mixed.

But, on the central issue of Presidential leadership, the ability to get as many people as possible to work to make the machine move, I think he has failed.  And it’s not just because of the nasty lady who threw me the dirty look 35 years ago, or her spiritual descendants.  She’s not irrelevant, but she’s not decisive.  It was his job to figure that out, find people he could work with, and act.  

How does a man twice get elected, and yet end up perpetual trench warfare?  When he’s paradoxically great with crowds, but not so great with people. 

I voted for Mr. Obama twice, and I don't regret my choice.  But at the end of the day, whatever the obstacles, the buck stops at his door.  He has to do better.  Not just for me, but for all of us.

August 3, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)