©2010 Daniel A. Brown
Poor Barack Obama. He sure had a year he won’t soon forget.
He has undoubtedly learned that there is a realm of difference between being a candidate and being the leader of the so-called Free World. I’ve always envisioned that when any President-Elect enters the Oval Office for the first time, he is met by a little grey-haired man with a satchel who lays some papers on his desk and says, “OK, sucker, here’s how the world REALLY works.” This theorem applies regardless of ideology. Sarah Palin’s phony “Aw, Shucks” populism would have to make the same concessions to reality were she to win in 2012.
As I write this, the local peaceniks are on the Commons protesting Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. While agreeing in principle, I’m not joining them in practice. What peace activists haven’t realized is that they and Obama, liberal as he is, occupy separate universes. They see the world as they wish it would be. He’s dealing with it as it actually is. We should expect no less. He is answerable to reality, not dreaming, as noble as that dream might be. There are indeed life-threatening dangers out there and Al-Qaida, potentially equipped with a loose Pakistani nuclear weapon, is one of them.
His speech in accepting his controversial Nobel Peace Prize award was one of the most masterful I’ve ever heard coming out of the mouth of a world leader. While I do not agree with all of it, I was impressed by the level-headed quality of the thinking involved, most distinctly his understanding of the human condition and the admission that war is, essentially, a failure of the human spirit. Still, his long and painful evaluation of the Afghan War leads me to conclude that he is trying to make the best out of an awful mess that was dumped on his lap by the infinitely more callous Dick Cheney who would do America a favor by shutting up.
I still support President Obama although I don’t expect him to either live up to all his campaign promises or bring about some kind of progressive utopia. Living as he is in the 24/7 news cycle, he is one of the few presidents in American history to endure non-stop micro-criticism of his every move, even the most trivial. The response from right wing conservatives over the past year has been, to be somewhat charitable, nothing less than psychotic. Spending time as I do on political chat groups in cyberspace, I am struck dumb by the level of hysteria and paranoia springing from average citizens who might, otherwise, be good rational folks. But the idea of comparing Obama to Hitler for wanting to bring about universal health care, or that he is a racist who “hates” white people, (not the mention the “Birthers” foolishness) offends that rational side of me. As far as arguing with people in that state; you’d have an easier time debating a team of drunken Klingons.
The reaction from the Left is only less depressing because I think someone should have the guy’s back. Implementing policy is harder than voicing it but the level of self-interest, coming from both Left and Right, is a tad disconcerting. It’s as if the American people have decided to turn John F. Kennedy’s famous quote on its head, declaring, “Ask not what you can do for your country. Demand what the country should be doing for you”.
However, American presidents achieve historical greatness, not by placating everyone, but by rising to the occasion in times of crisis and making that one great decision or decisions that sets the nation on a better course. Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy and Reagan all had faults, failures and enough critics to fill the Superbowl. But they came through at those decisive moments and saved their country from a distinct calamity. Lincoln won the Civil War and ended slavery. Roosevelt guided us through the Great Depression and World War II. JFK applied the right balance of toughness and diplomacy during the Cuban Missile Crisis thus preventing the world from becoming a nuclear wasteland. As much as I disliked him, I give Reagan credit for reaching out to Mikhail Gorachev and beginning the steps that ended the Cold War.
Conversely, George W. Bush had a similar opportunity to achieve greatness right after the September 11th terrorist attacks when the nation was in complete solidarity and every country around the world, even Iran, was standing behind us. One trembles with barely suppressed rage at what he might have accomplished with all that positive energy pushing at his back. Instead, he blew it, allowing the neo-conservatives in his administration to sidetrack us into the unnecessary Iraq war and then descending down to the lowest depths of sleazy partisan politics.
Obama has a chance for historical greatness as well, confronted as he is with a full plate of challenges. All he needs to do is stop trying to please people and do the right thing. And what that is depends on whatever his vision for America is. Citizens of all stripes like success and if he can succeed on health care, restore the economy and bring the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a constructive conclusion, he will have more than fulfilled that promise that fired so many of us up in the first place.