As he ponders the "shellacking" the Democratic Party took in last Tuesday's elections, President Obama should begin the second half of his term by overcoming his aversion to dealing with the bad things of the past. Remember, he rejected calls for investigations into possible wrongdoing by Bush administration officials, insisting that, instead, he preferred to look forward.
That was the first disappointment to many of his supporters, and a bad sign of things to come. After promising that he would close the prison camp at Guantánamo Naval Base, he dragged his feet. He fiddled around on getting rid of "Don't ask, don't tell" — again, contrary to what his supporters felt were concrete promises. He did not get rid of earmarks or curtail lobbyists, as promised. When he proposed sweeping health care reform, he let it be known that he was not as excited about a controversial public-option portion as was much of his public.
Those were bitter developments for his more liberal constituents. But there was more. He left it almost entirely up to Congress to work out the details of his health care reform. Congress? Even amateur politicians in Washington know better than that. Then the president seemed to distance himself from the day-to-day trench work that's usually mandatory for legislation of that magnitude. Obama further insisted on waiting for some GOP assistance to ensure bipartisanship. He waited and waited and waited.
Fuzzy vision and strange moves on important issues, as well as nonspecifics on policy, leave the electorate confused and frustrated, and unnecessarily mad. Worse, opponents are emboldened.
Republicans, ragged from the 2008 stomping by Obama and the Democrats, regarded a president whom they deemed ready to deal, or cave, even before negotiations began as a resuscitator. They saw such actions as weakness, and a beacon of hope for a rigid policy of just saying no. The president became hapless Charlie Brown in Charles Schulz's annual holiday homage to hocus-pocus, with Lucy (the GOP) snatching away the football every single time little Charlie went to kick it. Obama began to look silly begging Republicans — any Republican — for support. And now he is accused of not seeking GOP cooperation over the past two years.
With their early success in resisting Obama, Republicans gained self-confidence in a singular objective that they articulated without apology: the destruction of Obama and his presidency. South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint declared that health reform would be Obama's Waterloo, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said after last week's midterms that the party's priority for the next two years will be to make Obama a one-term president.
How could all this have happened in two years since the country, and the world, went gaga over America's first black president? I do not believe it was his politics or his policies — although they certainly were factors — as much as it was race (more so than most white Americans are willing to acknowledge, given our horrific racial history).
In some ways, Obama's highly effective and successful campaign for president was partly to blame for his problems. It reminds me of a great preacher's Sunday sermon — and indeed, Obama was in the pulpit in pursuit of the presidency. His eloquent rhetoric set the voters on fire, and his exhortations to action met eager ears and an anxious electorate ready to do battle, similar to the "amen" and "preach" chorus heard at sermons, the congregants pumped up and ready to go, to personally take on the devil himself.
Then came Monday and Tuesday and the rest of the week. And reality. Difficult, especially if the messenger has to backpedal a bit or tweak his policies, leaving many supporters feeling betrayed and unenthusiastic. Or confused. Obama surely confronted a huge mess that he inherited from the Bush years, and his administration was forced to spend most of its time on economic matters. They had to fix Wall Street and the financial industry and felt compelled to save big banks, the housing industry and the auto industry.
In saving the economy, they neglected the working classes, the masses of voters. Many Americans believed that the Obama administration either forgot about or did not care about the devastation taking place in neighborhoods, about soaring unemployment and about a housing crisis that threatened the very existence of the middle class, the people whose anger exploded on Election Day.
As the crises escalated, many decided that Obama, the once almost-perfect rhetorician, had all of a sudden became tongue-tied. This, in turn, allowed Republicans and right-wing electronic bigmouths to ruin his credibility over the airways, creating lies about him and his policies — he supported death panels; he was a Muslim, anti-Christian, socialist foreigner — that too many Americans gave too much credence as the eloquence seemed to turn into babble. The right-wingers, sensing blood, piled on without mercy, a relentless pounding similar to a cornered heavyweight boxer suffering blow after blow, unable to punch his way out. Nothing depicted the president's mood more poignantly than a Page One photo in the New York Times after his postelection press conference — a somber, almost sorrowful look.
And now what? Almost to a pundit, there is agreement that Obama has to come out of his slumber and counterpunch, and hard. No more Mr. Nice Guy. What does a person do to someone who wants to hasten his downfall? Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy long ago urged the president to "man up." Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist, said it was "time for the big dog to bite back."
The president is head of the Democratic Party. That means playing hard and rough, getting a little dirty down in the trenches. If he cannot or does not want to do it, then he has to have his people do it. Some have urged him to become another Bill Clinton, but as Howard Fineman remarked in Newsweek, "I'm not sure Obama has the political chops of Bill Clinton."
Fineman and other political observers have concluded that the White House staff is not as astute as it should be and that Obama, as great a communicator as he's supposed to be, is losing that fight to the Republicans. At his press conference, the president admitted as much, declaring that perhaps he didn't communicate as well as he should have.
Obama said Sunday in India that he has to make some "midcourse corrections and adjustments." Actually, he needs to do more than that. If the changes are timid, tentative and dependent on Republican help, he will be no better off than he was in the past.
"The Republicans offer plenty of rage and resentment, but nothing of substance beyond fulminations about a deficit that their proposals — more and bigger tax cuts for the comfortable, the gutting of health care reform — would exacerbate," Hendrick Herzberg wrote in the New Yorker.
Obama needs a new, sharper and more aggressive staff that will help him anticipate traps and avoid embarrassments such as the Shirley Sherrod fiasco — or worse. He needs people around him other than his comfort-zone fellow Ivy Leaguers — some older black help with longer institutional memories — to help him sidestep the lurking landmines.
Paul Delaney is a veteran reporter and a former editor at the New York Times. He is one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists.