Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An Instinctive Response

"May God stand between you and harm, in all the dark places you may travel."

Eighteenth Egyptian dynasty

Each president carves out his own niche, based on his personality and his individual style.

He is elected to face the next four years as leader of the American people — who expect him to do so in his own way (although there are certain things that are expected of every president).

If the voters approve, the president usually is re–elected. If they don't, he might still be re–elected, but he's going to have to work a lot harder.

Which will be true of Barack Obama?

I don't know. A majority of Americans apparently liked what they saw in 2008 — but that was back in the days when many Americans didn't know nearly as much about him as they will by 2012, when they will have seen him on their TV screens every day for more than three years.

You really get to know someone you see every day, and this constant exposure has been the undoing of some presidents. Familiarity, don't you know, breeds contempt.

And it focuses attention like a laser beam on those traits with which people just aren't terribly comfortable. For example, have you ever been in a relationship in which one of you snored? The one who snored may have possessed several fine and endearing qualities, but the many positives may have been outweighed by the single negative.

Anyway, I realize that those comfort boundaries vary from person to person, but I'm seeing some things from the president in this Gulf oil spill crisis that I find unsettling — and unsettlingly familiar. And I wonder how many other people feel that way, too.

Let's get some perspective first.

Go back a couple of years to the presidential campaign, when Obama frequently spoke of eight years of "failed" Bush policies. Well, that's the kind of thing the opposition is expected to say during the heat of a campaign, and the circumstances surrounding the general election campaign were ideal for that kind of criticism.

And if any presidency in modern times deserved to be labeled a failure, the Bush administration did.

But when you've won the election and you take office, it's time to stop campaigning and start governing.

Oh, and you also take ownership of what has already happened (because the voters chose you to deal with it) — and responsibility for whatever will happen in the next four years (because voters deemed you more capable). It's part of the deal.

Now, I know that, in today's world, the campaign never really ends.

But crude oil started spewing into the Gulf when the offshore rig exploded in April. It is now June. I find it troubling that, when Obama spoke of the subject recently, he placed at least as much emphasis on fixing blame as fixing the problem, saying that he wants to know "whose ass to kick."

Obama won't be running for a second term for two more years, and this is the kind of crisis a president can use to make his case for re–election (if everything works out) — but this president acts like he's thrown in the towel on this problem and is focusing on his case for pointing fingers. I suppose that "ass" remark was his attempt to provide some of that macho swagger that lots of people (even some of his critics) admired about George W. Bush.

I know it must be frustrating for Obama. Bush certainly deserved to be blamed for much of the mess that was waiting for Obama after he took the oath of office. But he can't be plausibly blamed for something that happened more than a year after he left the presidency.

And that leaves Obama with a different problem. Who can be blamed?

This problem is a big one. Millions of lives and hundreds, if not thousands, of cities and towns hang in the balance. And I agree that, ultimately, at some point, someone's head must roll.

But obsessing about it now indicates to me that Obama does things in reverse order. Maybe that is his instinctive response.

If it is, I can sympathize — sort of. I remember when I was in ninth grade, and my algebra teacher gave me a problem to do. I went up to the board and did it in reverse order. I got the same result as those who did it correctly and in the correct order. I just did mine backwards.

I remember my teacher watching me with a puzzled look on her face, then, when I was done, she asked me, "Why did you do it that way?" I confessed that I did not know. It was just easier for me.

Well, it's one thing to do an algebra problem in reverse when you're 15 years old. It's quite another to be worrying about who to blame for something that could wreak such havoc in so many lives for so many years — when the problem hasn't been resolved.

This, it seems to me, is characteristic of Obama. Before becoming president, he had no experience in executive problem solving. That doesn't make him unique. But that may help to explain some things.

Perhaps, because of the times in which his presidential campaign was waged, Obama got the idea that being president was about two things — blaming someone else when things went wrong and making sure you get credit for showing up when things do go wrong, even if you don't provide a solution or, for that matter, much leadership.

I became accustomed to this approach from the start, when the Democratic Party's congressional lackeys boasted that they were "the jobs squad" after working out a compromise of the economic stimulus package. But when the jobs failed to materialize as advertised, they resorted to the pass–the–buck strategy. That mess we inherited was worse than we thought, they whined.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans who were employed the day Obama was sworn in joined the ranks of the jobless — and statistics suggest that many have remained there. We miscalculated, they said, and then they turned their attention to a Supreme Court nomination that was never in doubt and health care reform that won't begin to go into effect for several years.

I had a hard time swallowing that one. Obama was quite vocal in the fall of 2008 about his concerns for the U.S. economy. We were headed for a second Great Depression if we elected John McCain, voters were warned.

The scare tactics worked. A race that had been close before the economic implosion turned into a borderline landslide.

Now, certainly, there are things that candidates don't know — and won't know until they are approved by the voters and the transition process begins. But it seems to me that it's kind of hard to make a convincing case that you didn't comprehend how bad the economy really was when you used that kind of rhetoric to be elected.

Recent job gains notwithstanding, the stimulus has yet to create jobs at the rate this country needs. Yet, every time that I have heard a congressional Democrat asked in the last 16 months what was being done to create jobs, the response has begun with "Well, this is Bush's fault ..."

I know I can't speak for everyone, but, as one of the unemployed, my (typically mental) response has been "let's fix the problem."

But nearly every word I hear uttered from Obama's defenders is about blame. Not responsibility. Not what is being done to correct the problem. Blame.

Obama doesn't rely on blame as much as his supporters do, but he works his way into that fairly regularly — and subtly — nonetheless. Sometimes it comes in the form of Obama codespeak — "This problem was years in the making" so therefore it will take years to repair.

And sometimes it is implied. Obama doesn't seem to like discussing unemployment. He does it when he has to, like on the first Friday of each month, but not always. Last year, for example, I criticized him on Labor Day for failing to speak publicly about joblessness on that occasion.

I have often thought that Obama simply does not know what to do about unemployment. And I don't fault him for that. It's a daunting problem. There's no doubt it was daunting for FDR. And I suppose, if I were president, I would be tempted to do as Obama has done and quietly hope the problem resolves itself.

But I'm not the president — and FDR knew it was the most urgent problem his administration faced.

And I am certainly not the only one who thinks it is the most urgent problem this administration faces. Obama likes to present himself as proactive, but, truthfully, there is little a president can do to heal an ailing economy. He can encourage policies he believes will help but not much more than that.

I'm sure he feels a sense of outrage that is compounded by the problem in the Gulf, but he may also, as CNN's John Blake writes, be resisting the temptation to be the "angry black man" — because that is an image that many voters find disturbing.

If a president's skilled in the role of Empathizer–in–Chief, which Obama is not, he can address the unemployed in a heartfelt way and assure the voters he is doing everything he can to help them — even if he's really just blowing smoke.

Last week's jobs report gave the administration plenty of smoke to blow, but Bob Herbert of the New York Times saw through it.

"[T]he No. 1 problem facing the U.S. continues to fester," he writes, "and that problem is unemployment."

Whoa, that can't be right, I can hear the Obama defenders saying. Nearly half a million jobs were created in May.

Ah, the deception of numbers. "The government hired 411,000 workers to help with the census," points out Herbert, "but those jobs are temporary and will vanish in a few months." The private sector, meanwhile, turned in a "dismal performance," creating only 41,000 jobs in May.

And oil continues to pour into the waters of the Gulf as it has for more than 50 days.

There was a wonderfully understated — yet, at the same time, so telling — moment in "Thirteen Days," the 2000 big–screen dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a conversation with presidential assistant Kenny O'Donnell, President Kennedy says, "I thought there'd be more good days."

I don't know if Kennedy actually said that or if it was a piece of manufactured dialogue, but it would be an appropriate thing for the current president to say. I certainly couldn't fault Obama for bemoaning the fact that there haven't been more good days in his presidency.

Presidencies can be like that, one crisis after another, irrespective of the president's strengths and weaknesses — which brings me to my reason for opening this post with a quote from the 18th Egyptian dynasty.

More than 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, the 18th dynasty ruled Egypt. It may be the most famous dynasty of all, having included King Tut as one of its pharaohs, but I don't think it was responsible for any great achievement — like the construction of the Egyptian pyramids — of which people continue to speak in hushed tones today.

The 18th dynasty appears to have had some fine intellects, though, one of whom (whose name is lost to antiquity) conceived the blessing that is reproduced at the start of this post.

Obama, too, possesses a fine intellect. And, when he began his quest for the presidency, I'm sure he envisioned something entirely different from what has transpired in his first 16 months as president.

But it's what it is.

Obama may find himself traveling in many dark places in the next couple of years. And, whether he leaves behind an achievement that people are still talking about 3,000 years from now or not, I hope that, as he travels to those dark places, God does, in the words of the Egyptian dynasty's blessing, stand between him and harm.

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