This week I had the privilege of reading two expertly written articles that highlight the difficulties President Barack Obama faces as he prepares for the 2012 election.
The first, by Washington Post writer Alexander Heffner, explained why Obama was not the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt, as many publications and pundits exclaimed back in 2008.
The second, by Tallahassee Democrat columnist Gerald Ensley, expressed his frustration that most of the president’s more ardent critics were driven by their latent or overt racial biases.
Just three years ago, when Barack Obama ascended to the presidency, myriad articles hailed his election as evidence that America has entered a “post-racial era.” In the time since, amid a stalling economy and wars on three fronts, the criticism of the Obama Administration has become more pointed. As well it should, when considering that in mid-2009, the president proclaimed that his administration was taking ownership of the economic recovery.
While experts may endlessly debate the success, or lack thereof, of the various stimulus packages and the health care overhaul, Obama’s supporters remain perplexed at the contempt from talking heads and commenter’s on news Web sites who, as Ensley writes, “can’t say it’s his politics, because Obama’s politics are virtually the same as Bill Clinton’s, and there was never as much vitriol from conservatives for Clinton as there is for Obama.”
Are some of the president’s critics racists? Of course. There are ardent racists in this country who will never support a black man for president — period!
Among my own Republican Party, Herman Cain’s initially promising campaign to become the party’s first black presidential nominee is failing due to his lack of depth on substantive issues, not to mention his failure to acknowledge the separation of church and state with respect to Islam. But even if Cain combined the economic wisdom of John Maynard Keynes with the foreign-policy expertise of Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche, there are still dyed-in-the-wool racists who would never cast a vote for him.
The same holds true for many black voters who will cast ballots for black political candidates out of racial fealty as opposed to political or personal interests.
But now that he’s in office, some in the Obama camp have been free with the friendly fire. Union leaders distrust the Obama Administration for failing to aggressively weigh in on the battles over workers rights in Wisconsin and Michigan. Gays and Lesbians feel slighted by Obama’s nuanced stance on gay marriage. Black civil-rights leaders are angry at the paucity of specific measures to address the Depression-level unemployment rate among African Americans.
Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, two of the more prominent black political pundits of the past 20 years, have drawn harsh rebukes from black Obama supporters for their incessant criticism of the president for being, as West recently suggested, a “Wall Street puppet.”
Without doubt the president is subjected to a diverse lot of critics, but when one separates the message from the messenger, it becomes clear that the real problem for Obama is that our politics have turned personal — there is a lack of civility in political speech, debate and discourse. Policy debates have become political shouting matches, and any act or decision, be it good, bad or indifferent, is met with blistering criticism.
Many voters, excited by all the hyperbole, have yet to internalize that ideology should serve as a guide, not a rigid set of rules that disallow compromise. In this environment, success is hard to find.
Further, the expectations placed upon this president to be the “Messiah” — the second coming of FDR, an expectation Obama seemingly embraced — were misplaced. The president is a mortal, and his politics are driven in part by the realities of one born of biracial heritage and raised in a white family of modest means.
Unlike the patrician Roosevelt, Obama, of the working class, refuses to aggressively attack his foes. Obama’s reticence in this regard, as several biographers have suggested, stems from a lifelong pattern of preferring to be liked as opposed to being right.
Still, one of the president’s more promising campaign planks was a desire to change the discourse in America. He still has time, but he has to step away from his natural desire to get along and tell both the right and left why his policies are best suited to lead the recovery.
If Obama doesn’t push his agenda with pride, confidence and aggressive action, then his chances for re-election may not withstand the cynical winds of today’s presidential politics.