A PRESIDENCY BEGINS
I was a Barack Obama fan from the moment I heard him deliver the Keynote at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Yet when I heard that he was thinking of running for President a couple of years later, my initial reaction was that it might be a tad premature. His talent as a politician was apparent, and in that regard, he towered over the opposition. But he clearly lacked experience. In fact, other than running for office, he lacked accomplishments. From my own life, I knew that accomplishments don’t just materialize from thin air – they come after a process of mini-failures and successes that teach us where our instincts fail us every bit as much as they teach us about our strengths. Barack Obama hadn’t experienced those failures. He hadn’t taken many risks at all. He taught himself rhetoric, studied up on policy, and tried to get along with as many legislators as possible. But he never took on a controversial cause to the extent that he risked his reputation in the process. In that sense, he resembled more a politician-in-training than he did a true statesman. So, I predicted, if he did win the Presidency, we could expect him to struggle for 1 ½ years or so before he finds his way, and that troubled me, since I viewed him as so far and away superior to the other potential Presidents that I wanted him at his best for a full eight years.
Clearly, for most of the past 14 months, Barack Obama has not been a particularly skilled President – nowhere nearly as skilled as he was a candidate. When it comes to leadership, he has been AWOL. Indeed, he has come across as overly calculated, sheepish, and lacking of vision. At times, he has even given the impression that he took the job more for the parties you get to throw than for the causes you get to confront. And when the Republican bullies threw mud in his face, his instinct appeared to involve flight just as much as fight.
But then something happened: he lost an election. A year after his blissful inauguration, he had the pleasure of sitting in his easy chair in the White House and watching as the seat of his friend and mentor, Ted Kennedy, was given to a health care reform-bashing upstart Republican. As wake-up calls go, that was a gem. No sooner did Scott Brown become the Junior Senator from Massachusetts than some of Barack’s fellow Senators began to panic about the future of health care reform. Some called for desperate attempts to pass it overnight before the Democrats lost their Super Majority in the Senate. Others threw up their hands, talked about health care reform being dead in the water, and seemed reconciled to three years of some sort of weak, “unity” Government that the Democrats would run de jure and the Republicans would run de facto. As for Barack, he appeared to take the Brown defeat as a sign that it was time to change his approach. “Barack Obama President” was obviously a failure, so he needed to get to something that he knew how to do well. That led to the resurgence of “Barack Obama Candidate.” Soon, the country was treated to speech after speech, rally after rally, and smile after smile. Gone was the characteristic fecklessness of Barack’s first year in office and in its place was an incredible resolve. As a candidate, Barack resembles one of those effortless, long-striding marathon runners who even more than Springsteen is born to run. As a candidate, Barack doesn’t know the meaning of quit. And this was the mentality that he brought to the health care fight once he internalized the lessons of Scott Brown’s election.
Frankly, this was the Obama that I envisioned when I saw him mow down the competition in 2008 and assume the mantle of the nation’s first non-white President in history. This was the Obama that I even dreamed might someday bust heads together, week after week, month after month, until finally, against all odds, we had ourselves a peace deal in the Middle East. I knew that was a long shot, but I figured the odds were better with Barack as President than with any other politician of this era.
Now that the health care reform battle is over, and the forces of economic equity (if not efficiency) have won, it is time to take a breath and welcome for the first time the President that we thought we elected back in November of ’08. Our leader understands now what he must do. He is at his best when (a) he is fighting, not simply facilitating, (b) he is working on a competitive campaign, not simply attempting to administer a large, complex organization, and (c) he is marketing both a substantive cause and a somewhat unflattering portrait of his opposition. This is admittedly different from the bi-partisan Barack that he was hoping to show us during his first year in office. But that Barack is as useless today as a dime in a public phone booth. The Republicans don’t want to play ball with him. They didn’t give him one friggen vote in his signature legislation. Not one! The result is that in a land that stands for freedom above all else, Barack can’t help but understand that the GOP has done him a favor. They have freed him to do what he does best: campaign! In that regard, he is both experienced and accomplished.
It is too early to declare that Barack is home free and that the rest of his Presidency is all downhill from here. Plenty of things can, and surely will, go wrong. But at least he has a functioning blueprint as to what does and does not work in his White House. Now that he has a knowledge base, he should be able to succeed or fail on the basis of his talent level. And in that regard, I don’t know about you, but I kind of like his odds.