From Hope to Helpless
Posted on July 23, 2012
Originally published in The Hill.
The thrill is gone.
The Obama presidency has failed to measure up to the optimism that greeted him when he first stepped into the White House.
The economy weakens with each passing day. International instability increases. War threatens in the Middle East.
America’s social fabric continues to fray. The poverty rate gets worse. Consumer confidence grows more pessimistic.
The president seems helpless to fix the problems, unsure of how to lead, unwilling to take any political risks.
A senseless tragedy hits Colorado, and the president rightly expresses remorse and sympathy. But you don’t get the sense that underneath the sadness there is a steely determination to fix things. Instead of offering a concrete plan to keep guns out of the hands of crazy people, the president demurs.
His hometown of Chicago is beset by gang violence. Kids are getting killed on purpose and by accident. The president’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel — the new mayor — does his best, but you get the sense that he could use an assist from his former boss. The president focuses on fundraising and campaigning instead.
A fiscal cliff fast approaches. There is plenty of evidence that the automatic spending cuts and tax increases are having a negative impact on the economic growth and job creation. Instead of calling in congressional leaders to find a solution (temporary or not), the president regurgitates old campaign rhetoric meant to inflame the problem, not solve it.
A drought hits the Midwest, pushing up commodity prices. Instead of dogging the Congress to pass a farm bill, the president punts. Instead of pressing on climate change, the president retreats.
In this age of anxiety, the American people want strong leadership from their president.
They want someone who will work tirelessly to fix problems. They want a leader who will steadfastly stand up for his principles, but also work to cut deals.
This president seems resigned to helplessness.
Instead of confronting problems in a way that will lead to eventual compromise, he is content to spend most of his efforts on the campaign trail.
The Obama campaign has decided to go all in on a strategy to make Mitt Romney the issue, and from their perspective, that makes perfect sense.
Campaigns have to deal with how things are, not how things could be. And from their perspective, if things continue on their current path, their only choice is to make a concerted effort to tear down the former Massachusetts governor.
That is why Team Obama released an ad mocking Mitt Romney as he sings “America the Beautiful.” Romney’s voice might have been off-key, but it is the Obama campaign that is off-message.
The president is not going to get reelected if the unemployment rate sticks above 8 percent. He is not going to get reelected if consumer confidence continues to slide and if the American people continue to believe that the country is seriously off on the wrong track.
John Kenneth Galbraith once said, on the topic of leadership, “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: It was the willingness to confront, unequivocally, the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”
Can anybody truly say that President Obama has confronted the major anxiety of the American people today, economic security?
I don’t think so.
He has focused his attention elsewhere, on things like healthcare or economic fairness. But mostly he has focused on his own reelection campaign.
I might disagree with the president on many of these issues, but I would appreciate him taking first a strong stand and then finding a way to find common ground. It is not enough to offer only campaign platitudes.
Napoleon Bonaparte once said that a leader “was a dealer in hope.”
The president hasn’t been dealing in very much hope lately. Instead, he seems helpless.