I wish that last week Barack Obama had not accepted General Stanley McChrystal's resignation as commander of the war in Afghanistan. I wish that instead the president had picked up the phone and unceremoniously fired the blabbermouth military man as soon as he digested the insulting and insubordinate comments uttered by McChrystal and his staff to a reporter from Rolling Stone. If ever a military man was asking to be given the boot, it was McChrystal. If ever Obama needed to kick an ass it was his. If ever a politician needed to go with his gut, it was then.
Characteristically, though, Obama managed to turn a no-brainer into a brainer. Instead of sending McChrystal packing, Obama announced accorded him the dignity of allowing him to resign, adding a statement so full of praise for the wayward commander that it almost sounded as if McChrystal was being promoted. There wasn't a trace of the entirely justifiable righteous anger a commander-in-chief should have felt after a senior officer flouted a direct order to be keep his mouth shut, issued months ago after a previous bout of verbal diarrhea. Obama made the right decision, all right, but it was somehow emotionally unsatisfying.
But that's the way Obama rolls. Not a trace of emotion. Not a trace of instinct. Entirely rational. Obama — with due deference to Jerry Butler — is truly the Ice Man. Expecting him to make a gut decision is as ridiculous as asking a horse to defecate ice cream. It's just not in his nature. He comes across as all head and no heart.
Such dispassion is not what we expect from political leaders — especially black ones who, no matter how brainy they actually may have been, have often based their public appeals on a churchy kind of charisma. Obama's lack of fire helps to explain why leftist critics like Glen Ford of blackagenda.com get so worked up in their denunciations of him. Ford wrote this not long ago about Obama's workmanlike response to the oil spill in the Gulf: "When history passes its verdict on the current era, she will not assign much import to the advent of the First Black President of the United States. Rather, history will mark 2010 as the year a servile political operative in the White House exposed the seabed to deep defilement by the oil colossus, from which the world never fully recovered."
I couldn't disagree more. As I said in an essay for The Root on the occasion of Obama's first year in office: "Part of the frustration some of us feel is rooted in Obama's conciliatory approach to governing. He is the precise opposite of a traditional black leader — a jelly-maker, not a tree-shaker, in Jesse Jackson's memorable phrase. His default stance is compromise, not confrontation. Such behavior makes Obama look both weak and cynical. We sometimes want him to be angry and unbending, not calm, cool and conniving. We want him to be a hero and, by his nature, he's anything but."
Contrary to Ford's dire prediction, I think that when historians of the future assess Obama, they will not write him off as a servile collaborator with corporate power. Nor will they define him as a revolutionary. Instead they will see him as an unemotional incrementalist who, to modify a phrase, campaigned in poetry and governed not merely in prose, but in the fine print. I think they will see him as a leader who inherited a mess, who broke through on some issues such as health care and long-overdue reforms of the financial system, but who, especially in foreign affairs, was obliged to carry on many of the policies of his horrendous predecessor, albeit more responsibly and skillfully. In short, Obama will be seen reformer who tried hard to rationalize into reality the gauzy dreams that lofted him into the Oval Office and inevitably fell somewhat short. A man, not a Superman. A good president, but not a great one. And maybe, just maybe, the best we could do in these trying times.
Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.