It's Time for President Obama to Become a Leader
The president's professorial approach to issues has left Americans wondering what he stands for. He needs to find his Berlin Wall and take a stand on something.
Such a commitment has many implications. It could mean planning to deal with the enormous budget deficits; reforming an educational system that fails too many of our children; checking a criminal justice system on an incarceration binge; or addressing our decaying infrastructure, problematic dependency on foreign oil and ham-handedness in how we engage the rest of the world.
Although it is one decision of his that troubles me personally, Obama's judgment to strengthen institutions in Afghanistan and challenge the Taliban insurgency is one sign of his commitment to taking responsibility today for problems that otherwise will hound us into the future.
In too many respects, however, his approach to the three R's has been pursued as largely a matter of the mind, not the meeting of political savvy and pointedly articulated moral conviction. His presidency is playing out like a course taught by a scholar who has a brilliant mind but who is unable to excite or engage the students in the classroom. Obama the candidate did a much better job than Obama the president has in reconciling the roles of manager and CEO with the need to articulate and lead on behalf of a cause and a vision.
In fairness, Obama entered office faced with a scale of challenges that no other newly elected president has confronted in the post-World War II age. Obama's predecessor handed him a $1.2 trillion deficit, two seriously mismanaged wars, doubt about the justification and rationality of American actions in foreign policy, and a global financial system on the verge of complete collapse. To make matters worse, not only did the party out of power seek ways to strategically advance its cause, but Republicans also eagerly took up the most obstructionist, "just say no" posture seen in recent political memory.
Moreover, the media environment has never been more treacherous. Obama has encountered an unprecedented media vitriol that is engulfingly poisonous, without standards and increasingly anchored by a few overtly partisan outposts, like arch-conservative Rush Limbaugh on the radio and the decidedly unfair and unbalanced Fox News on television.
And yet, Obama is coming to the close of his second full year in office as only vaguely in focus. I am not alone among his supporters in still desperately searching for a defining narrative for the man and his presidency. That is not a good situation. That is much of what makes him vulnerable to all the mass-media-generated negativity.
Seeking to do the right things in a reasonable way, and to take responsibility for big problems now, is not enough. To be sure, the commitment to thoughtful engagement with the challenges of our times is a welcome break from the tone of information-free decision making, bombast and unreflective action so characteristic of the Bush years.