Stop Punking Out, Obama!

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"For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting."


—Gen. George C. Patton

For Barack Obama, the most powerful black man in the history of the world, the equivalent of that ancient Roman ritual would be for his wife, or Valerie Jarrett, or his mother-in-law, or his domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes, to do a neck roll, flash her palm like the Supremes singing “Stop in the Name of Love,” and utter, with the contempt that only an outraged black woman can muster, “Knee-grow, puh-leeeze!”

I don’t know if the first lady or any of those other women actually does neck rolls or uses that kind of language, but I hope one of them does—and soon. Because our beloved president is allowing himself to be punked on what may be the most serious test he will ever face. And he’s not even putting up a good fight.

I refer, of course, to the horrendously disappointing way in which his administration is giving away the store to the very same forces that have created the health care crisis in America: the big health insurers and drug companies. He should be battling for the revolutionary changes in the health care system he promised during his campaign.

As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert explained in a remarkably clear-sighted piece on Tuesday, Obama’s administration has allowed itself to be “rolled” by these malefactors of great wealth and influence.

The so-called “public option,” the only realistic means of reducing the runaway costs of health care while providing coverage to millions of uninsured citizens, has been knocked off the table by a political axis of evil comprised of insurance and drug lobbyists, right-leaning, so-called moderate Democrats, and wild-eyed conservative Republicans who have turned legislators’ attempts to discuss the issues with their constituents into near brawls. So has giving the government the power to negotiate the cost of drugs with the pharmaceutical companies.


This is a situation that requires Obama to man up, drop the cool, college-professor pose and meet the enemy head on with passion and sweat. He needs to be reminded that he promised us change we could believe in. He needs to stick with his guns.

Forget the vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. Forget letting Congress set the agenda and all that bipartisan crap. This is a time for leadership and a clear message. Tell people clearly what you want and why you think it is necessary. Accept nothing less. Stop letting your Cabinet members float confusing trial balloons, as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius did this past weekend when she suggested that the administration might find health insurance cooperatives an acceptable alternative to the public option.


This is a time to fight, not seek compromise, because the compromise under consideration is a multi-billion-dollar backroom giveaway and a cop-out that can’t be made less foul by wrapping it in the sweet-smelling name of reform. Whatever you call the noxious brew of proposals masquerading as reform that is now emerging, it stinks.

What seems to be coming clear is that one of Obama’s most attractive personal attributes—his desire to find common ground, his willingness to reach out to his enemies, his need to make everyone happy—may also be his greatest political weakness. It seems to be rooted in the way he grew up, learning how to make white people, including his own relatives, feel comfortable, even if that means walking away from a crucial principle. We saw something like this when his regime acquiesced to the demands of the banking industry and allowed provisions that would have empowered bankruptcy judges to forestall foreclosures by restructuring mortgages to be stripped from a bill in the Senate.


I don’t know Obama, and I certainly can’t psychoanalyze him. But judging from a distance, he seems to have deluded himself into thinking that reaching out to his opponents is more important than protecting the core interests of his base—and even worse, that his supporters will stick with him no matter what. All that adulation, all that rock-star worship, all those plaudits may well be going to his head.

That’s why, back in Roman days, the slave whispered into the Emperor’s ear, “all glory is fleeting.” It’s why, in the era of Obama, we need someone to roll their neck, flick up their palm, and sneer, “Knee-grow, puh-leeeze!” Please be the leader we elected you to be, not the same old thing.


Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.

is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.