Say Uncle, Mr. President


It’ll take President Barack Obama more than a couple of town hall appearances to get his health care reform proposals back on track because health care isn’t the only thing that needs tweaking—he needs someone on the team to help him figure out how to get his mojo back.


Obama has aides for every occasion: Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett is his liaison to big business; Defense Secretary Bob Gates keeps him on the good foot with the military; Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel patrols Capitol Hill; TARP Czar Elizabeth Warren explains the unexplainable.

What’s missing from the president’s brain trust is a wise, old uncle. He needs someone who’s witnessed the last 50 years of American history from the ground level—a “wise Latino,” if you will.


Someone in the inner circle needs to have the green light to pull the president’s coat on any new proposal and ask him, “Are you kidding me?”

Let’s call him the Secretary of “The Real.”

An uncle would have reminded Obama that “Yes we can” and “We want change” meant “Bush must go” and “Do it yesterday”—not necessarily “Government Option Now.” But who would it be?

Obama’s got plenty of capable people on his team—but so far, the David Axelrods and Robert Gibbses of the world have only had a small sample of what it's like to be black in America.

The qualifications—a man of color who’s been around, made mistakes and lived to tell the tale: Cornell West is too cerebral, Colin Powell is too square, Edward James Olmos is too cool, Bill Cosby has a bigger mojo problem than Obama, and Rev. Jesse Jackson—I mean, come on…


Bill Clinton? Well, almost. But whoever the Secretary of Uncle was, here’s what he’d tell Obama:

“You’re still fighting the last war.”

In the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, his administration was bogged down in Somalia—a dubious military campaign in a Muslim country that was started by a predecessor named Bush.


The public was exhausted by Senate confirmation battles, debates over “Motor Voter,” “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and the Family and Medical Leave Act, and then ran out of steam when it came time to have a health care debate.

Sound familiar?

By trying to avoid the narrative of Clinton’s micromanaged, failed health care effort, Obama may have missed the meta-narrative: the success of his presidency is going to be measured by the course that he sets the country on, not how far along that course the country goes in four or eight years. He can’t solve all our problems in a year. Which is why his uncle would tell him…


“You need to get your “A” team on the field.”

And Obama is the “A” team.

Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, last seen pushing a Michael Jackson tribute resolution, took a phone call during her health care town hall meeting. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s retort to right-wingers attacking her for being “un-American” was to call her critics—wait for it—“un-American.”


Obama would be better off with “Flo” from Progressive Insurance going out there to pitch for him:

Short of that, the president has to accept that he’s Tiger Woods, the caddy and the red shirt all rolled into one. He’s alone on the 18th hole on Sunday. Fellow Democrats just don’t have the stuff.


Not that Obama is Mr. Perfect. As his Uncle Real would tell him, sometimes…

“You need to get to the point.”

Plan on hearing the “pull the plug on grandma” quote from Obama’s New Hampshire health care town hall on an endless, out-of-context radio and TV loop from now until the midterm elections.


For a guy who’s good with words, the president is building a nice resume of one-liners that he almost certainly wishes he could take back. No one really thinks that he meant any harm by his “pull the plug” line, but words do rankle. It’s time for him to leave the jokes to the professionals.

And the issue isn’t “death panels,” premiums, co-pays, tort reform or rationing—so Obama shouldn’t play it that way. It’s about Americans’ willingness to do something for the greater good.


Or not. But in order to convince Americans to go for the greater good, Obama needs to do a little sacrificing himself. Which is why his uncle will tell him…

“You don’t need a vacation; you need a ‘staycation.’”

It doesn’t matter that Martha’s Vineyard has been a summer haven for generations of African-American strivers, or that Obama probably needs a few days off. He should skip the family trip booked for next week. Michelle and the kids should still go, but he’s better off staying back in D.C.


First and foremost, Obama needs the public to know that he’s on his health care grind—there’s plenty of time later for a wholesome photo-op of him playing Frisbee on the beach with his kids.

George W. Bush vacationed more than he worked, but he was a legacy hire and a trust-fund baby, and everyone understood he was just being himself. Obama won’t get the same leeway when he hits The Vineyard with his Amazon Kindle. By the time you can say, “chill, mark,” the far right will have tagged the president as a Chablis-sipping nobleman living it up on Joe Six Pack’s dime.


The visuals just won’t work.

Obama can’t lose sight of the fact that he’s governing a nation of bacon cheeseburger enthusiasts who’ll skip work for the chance to yell at their Congressmen about why they don’t want “socialized” medicine, but can’t get enough government handouts like “Cash for Clunkers.”


He needs someone around who can help him keep this in mind. Someone who shoots from the hip and cuts through the crap.

That would the job of Obama’s honorary uncle. From health care to cap-and-trade to Iraq, he wouldn’t have to look at polling data or study a CBO report. He could tell the president what he already knows in his gut from a life lived on the front lines:

“You can try it if you want to—but these ‘real’ Americans will never go for it.”

David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter

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