Friday, January 22, 2010

Bold Words, Timid Actions: Obama, Year One

On January 20, 2009, an estimated one million people stood on the Mall in Washington, D.C. to witness the inauguration of Barak Obama. Untold millions around the world watched on television screens. Never in American history had so many witnessed the inauguration of a U.S. president. Never had so many felt so hopeful about the future of this nation.

On the day of Obama’s inauguration I was ecstatic to be done with the reactionary and divisive politics of George Bush, to be done with the self-righteousness of the right wing. At long last the U.S. government would function with a sense of caring for the well-being of those who did not have the means to insure their own well-being.

On January 19, 2010, My wife and I drove to the high school about a mile from our house to cast our vote in the special election of a senator to replace Ted Kennedy. As we drove up the hill to the polling place in the high school gym, we both noticed that there were a number of political signs bordering the road, and they all said “Vote for Brown”. We looked in vain for a sign saying “Vote for Coakley”. We knew that did not portend good for the outcome.

We cast our votes for Coakley, but all day there was a sick feeling in both of our stomachs. That sick feeling only intensified when the results we’d been dreading came in. Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the country, was sending a Republican to fill the remaining two years of Ted Kennedy’s terms. How could the mood of a nation change so radically in a mere 52 weeks?

I think the responsibility lies with the man in the Oval Office. It is as if the man who filled us with hope and enthusiasm, the man who vowed to bring change we could believe in was kidnaped, and in his place, someone substituted a person who looked like him but was far more timid in his actions.

This doppelgänger courted the Republican opposition, not understanding that the Republicans would never agree with him, that it was not in their self-interest to work amicably with him, that their vocabulary consisted of “No” and “Boo!” But the false Obama did not want to believe that a political party could be so wedded to negativity and scare tactics.

Even worse, however, is that the false Obama completely forgot the people who had been so enthused by his campaign and his election. He seemed to take for granted the millions and millions whose hopes he had kindled into dancing flames of warmth. When political right-wingers began holding a rallies around the country attacking the false Obama’s citizenship, when the “tea baggers” harassed Democratic congressmen at public meetings, the false Obama and the Democratic Party dismissed them as crazies, as people not worthy of serious consideration.

What he and his party failed to recognize was the passion the “tea baggers” embodied, the passion that George Bush had for his causes - the right to life, the war in Iraq, the opposition to research using stem cells, etc., etc. Regardless of how repugnant Bush’s politics were to me, he was not afraid to speak passionately about his beliefs.

A lack of passion has been the Democratic Party’s Achilles’ heel for decades now. When Al Gore debated George Bush, I cringed every time he droned, “I have a plan.…” When John Kerry debated George Bush I cringed every time he droned, “I have a plan.” Why doesn’t the Democratic Party understand that voters don’t care about plans? What people need to know about a candidate for office is what do you care about, and, are you able to make listeners feel how much you care?

Barak Obama-the-candidate was not timid about showing us his passion and caring. But then, the doppelgänger was substituted for the real Obama. When Congress began deliberating on how to reform health care, the real Obama would have gone around the country repeatedly exhorting us to put pressure on Congress, to protest at the offices of insurance companies. Not only did the false Obama do nothing, he did what Democrats always do; he let the Republicans define the issue. And, Republicans being Republicans did what Republicans do best - scared people by talking about death panels and that the government would kill your grandmother, that medical premiums would go up, that people would no longer be able to choose their own doctors.

The real Obama would have traveled the country speaking passionately about compassion, about our obligation to care about those among us who are ill and are dying because they cannot afford medical care, as did the real Obama’s mother. He would have shown us passionately that he cared, and in doing so, would have reignited that passion in us for a government that is compassionate. And, many of those in Congress who were wavering, and those who were opposed to reforming medical care would have been made to appear callous and unfeeling, and some would have stopped wavering and become supporters while others would have been shamed into silence -- maybe even the self-righteous and arrogant Joe Lieberman.

The real Obama would not have waited until two days before the special election in Massachusetts to ask for people’s support. By coming two days before the election, he appeared as nothing more than a desperate politician in trouble. Frequent trips to campaign on Coakley’s behalf would have sent a message that the President cared abut what happened in Massachusetts, that he believed in Martha Coakley.

Alas, as much as I would love to believe that a doppelgänger was substituted for the real Obama. I can’t, because the disappointment I feel is a response to Obama’s performance as president. I was aware that during his campaign he raised our hopes too high, that he could not meet them. I did not expect that he would abandon those hopes. I did not expect that he would involve himself in a contretemps between a Cambridge, Mass., police officer and a black Harvard professor, and invite them to the White House “for a beer”. He was the PRESIDENT, not a therapist.

I have written here earlier about being glad that Obama was a pragmatist, not an ideologue. I have also written here about my support of his receiving the Nobel Prize. What I did not write about, however, were my misgivings - that he seemed a little too cocky, too confident, that he seemed overwhelmed by the demands of being president, that, maybe, just maybe, God forbid, Hillary Clinton and John McCain had been right: he was too inexperienced.

All I know now, a mere year after his inauguration, is that I am disappointed, that I feel used, that there has not been change I could believe in, and I am heartbroken.. I hope the president finds the Obama I voted for - a man of passion, a man who would fight for what he believed in, a man who would see that he has become a puppet manipulated by the Republican, a man who understands that the moral climate of the nation is the responsibility of the person in the Oval Office, who understands that people who are energized by the moral challenges a president calls us to face can turn more Congressional votes toward his programs than he and his aides can by courting votes on the Hill..

Obama has three more years. Hopefully, at this time next year, the Obama I voted for will have returned from wherever he is now. I liked feeling hopeful about the future of my country.

© 2010 by Julius Lester