After holding my breath for about a year, I have exhaled in discouraged resignation. Since the raucous healthcare battles of last summer – when belligerent conservatives spewed paranoid misinformation in town halls and on the air – I have clung to the steadily-crumbling hope that President Obama would stand up to his right wing attackers by vigorously defending his policies. But I abandoned that hope after watching the President on ABC’s “The View” last week. During a jokey (but not at all funny) exchange with co-host Joy Behar, Mr. Obama made it clear that he has no intention of ever putting his dukes up.
About nine minutes into the interview, Behar asked President Obama why he hasn’t done more to counter the conservative media pundits who continue to bash him despite achievements like healthcare reform, the newly-passed Wall Street regulations and appointing two women to the Supreme Court. (To Behar’s list I would add Obama’s push to extend unemployment benefits and his forcing BP to set up a $20 billion relief fund for Americans devastated by the Gulf Coast oil spill.)
“I could go on and on about your accomplishments, and yet the right wing, through Fox News and other outlets, they seem to be hijacking the narrative,” bemoaned Behar. “Where on your side is the narrative? Where is your attack dog to come out and tell the American people, ‘Listen, this is what we did!’” My fist pumped reflexively at that crucial and perfectly stated question. But my pride crashed with the President’s milquetoast response. First, he made a joke. Responding to Behar’s “where is your attack dog” query, Mr. Obama said, “Joy, that’s your job!” “I do it!” shouted the still-frustrated Behar as the audience erupted into applause and laughter.
My chin dropped as the President quieted the crowd and elaborated with a really lame answer. After conceding that “politics is a contact sport” Mr. Obama accused Republicans of not playing fair. “We shouldn’t be campaigning all the time,” the President said. “There’s a time to campaign and a there’s a time to govern. Over the last 20 months what we’ve tried to do is to govern.”
That sounds noble and the country is better off because President Obama hasn’t allowed the haters to distract him from the task of leading the government. But leading does not require you to sit by passively while your enemies mischaracterize your policies and call you everything but a child of God. Sadly, that is what President Obama has done for the most part. As a result, the public’s perception of Mr. Obama’s presidency has been shaped by Republican lawmakers, conservative TV and radio, the Tea Party movement and ambitious right wing activists like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. That’s what Joy Behar meant when she said conservatives were “hijacking the narrative.”
But this goes way beyond perception and PR. President Obama’s reluctance to make contact in the rough-and-tumble contact sport of Washington, DC politics has unsettling practical implications. It’s the reason that Shirley Sherrod got fired. It’s hard to believe that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack booted Sherrod without an OK from the Oval Office. But, even if President Obama didn’t personally approve the firing, his lack of toughness set the tone for it. When word hit that Fox News muckraker Glenn Beck was going to discuss a video excerpt (now-discredited) of Sherrod supposedly talking bad about white folks, the Obama Administration got so scared (as did the NAACP) that Sherrod was forced to resign with the quickness.
Nobody, from President Obama on down, ever stopped to say, “Wait a minute! This video is only part of a longer speech and it was posted on an Obama-hating web sit. Now it’s being picked up by Obama-hating TV. Hmmm. Maybe the President’s foes are working an agenda here? Maybe we should take a look at the entire video before we throw one of our own under the bus?” A courageous leader would have done that. But the Sherrod affair was consistent with President Obama’s pattern of not being courageous. From caving in on key provisions of his healthcare proposal, to obsequiously apologizing (over and over again) to the police sergeant who wrongfully arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, President Obama has a history of spinelessness which has emboldened his opponents and demoralized his supporters.
A weak-kneed leader can’t inspire anyone – not even people who like what the leader stands for. The consequence of President Obama’s timidity is that, despite backing initiatives which have been popular and beneficial to the American people, Mr. Obama’s approval ratings are in the cellar, he is losing to generic Republican candidates in hypothetical election polls and his party is in real danger of being voted out of power on Capitol Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, one of many Democrats in the throes of a tough re-election bid, expressed his frustration with President Obama when he told a Las Vegas television station, “He is a person who doesn't like confrontation. He's a peacemaker. And sometimes I think you have to be a little more forceful. And sometimes I don't think he is.” Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was less charitable when he admonished the President that “the way to deal with bullies is to confront them, not run away.”
Watching President Obama kowtow to bullies brings to mind a stinging line from Gore Vidal’s classic play and movie about Presidential politics, “The Best Man.” In a pivotal scene, the Truman-esque former President slams a good-hearted but non-aggressive candidate saying, “Power is not a toy that we give to nice children. It’s a weapon! And the strong man takes it and uses it.” That Machiavellian statement espouses a political reality that President Obama must embrace if he hopes to pull his presidency and his party back from the brink. He doesn’t have to play dirty, but he does have to play. Mr. Obama correctly told “The View” that politics is a contact sport. It’s long past time for him to button up his helmet and start hitting.
Thanks for listening. I’m Cameron Turner and that’s my two cents.