Many loyal Democrats, myself included, give Barack Obama mixed reviews on his first four years in office. To his credit his first term has been marked by several major accomplishments. These include his signature Affordable Care Act, repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, badly needed banking regulation, student loan and credit reform and, in my opinion, the likelihood that he averted an economic depression by bailing out the auto industry early in his term. He has also been up against an obstructionist GOP-dominated Congress that was fixated on preventing his re-election.
Yet as was also the case with his predecessor, George W. Bush, there has been a noticeable “dark side” to Obama’s modus operandi that continues to concern many political observers. In the first installment I highlighted certain aspects of his style and demeanor that many believe have seriously detracted from his effectiveness. This installment focuses more specifically on incidents of questionable loyalty to key supporters, his relations with Congress and the detrimental impact of several members of his inner circle in impairing his performance.
The purpose of this critique is not the pan Barack Obama. Rather, it is to offer some candid and hopefully constructive criticism of his performance, in the hope that our President and his advisers may take these and other critiques to heart in maximizing his prospects for a successful second term.
Questionable Loyalty to Key Supporters
The golden rule in political etiquette and political ethics (is that an oxymoron?) is to remain unswervingly loyal to those who were instrumental in getting you into office. Clearly, Obama’s bid received overwhelming support from the majority of the Kennedy clan. Let’s face it, if Edward Kennedy had not taken Obama under his wing and anointed him as his prodigy, we would probably be celebrating the re-election of Hillary Clinton. And to Obama’s credit he ultimately paid his mentor back big-time with passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Yet Obama’s loyalty to other members of the Kennedy clan who heavily supported his bid for office leaves much to be desired. Ted’s Kennedy’s niece, Carolyn Kennedy, was a staunch supporter during Obama’s campaign, even going so far as to say that he offered the American people the same hope and inspiration as her father, JFK. And following his nomination, she was placed in charge of vetting the various candidates for Vice President.
Yet when Carolyn threw her hat into the ring to run in a special election for the New York state senate seat to be vacated by Hillary Clinton’s appointment as Secretary of State, Barack was notably absent in lending his support. Especially as Ted Kennedy was still alive, the right thing would have been to campaign on Carolyn’s behalf in the Democratic primary for this special election: in the event that she had lost he could have readily shifted his support to the winning nominee.
Ethel Kennedy, matriarch of the Kennedy family, threw her muscle behind Obama and even stopped talking to her son Bobby during election season as he was an outspoken Obama critic. After Obama won the election, Ethel invited him to stop by her house in the Kennedy compound. Her request was met by stony silence: Ethel was so angered by this treatment that she went on a rampage over-turning furniture in her house. To rub salt into the wound, Kennedy clan loyalists in Washington reported that the Obamas were voicing a lot of nasty remarks about the Kennedys. While Carolyn believed that most of the negativity was coming form Michelle, Barrack was nonetheless tarred by the same brush.
During the primaries Oprah Winfrey stuck her neck out and gave Obama her unequivocal endorsement and accompanied him on the campaign trail. The fact that a sizable portion of her audience took offense and her ratings plummeted didn’t seem to phase her. Her strong endorsement of Obama is credited with playing a major role in his victory in the primary election. Yet when Oprah traveled to Washington shortly after the presidential election for a pre-arranged interview with the first lady she received a decidedly cold shoulder from the White House, particularly from Michelle Obama.
Perhaps the most shameful display of disloyalty to staunch supporters is the alleged dissing of Bill and Hillary Clinton by Obama on election eve, once it became clear that the electoral votes were sewn up. It is widely known President Clinton suffers from advanced heart disease and some associates believe that he has only a few months to live. Yet despite this personal hardship, and the many political disagreements he has with Obama, he wholeheartedly threw himself into campaigning non-stop on his behalf in key battleground states. And we all know that Hillary has discharged her duties as Secretary of State in a most exemplary manner, and that this has taken a tremendous toll on her. Despite this unwavering support by the Clintons, media sources report that once Obama was confident that he had the election in the bag, he exclaimed “Bill and Hillary – who needs them!”
Interaction with Congress
From the beginning of Obama’s first term reports abounded concerning the disdainful attitude toward members of both houses of Congress demonstrated by the President and his inner circle. By appearances, it seemed that the newly-elected President and his cohorts had incorrectly assumed that his election was a resounding mandate from the American people, and that our new leader needn’t dirty his hands with schmoozing Representatives and Senators from both sides of the aisle. This, of course, has been the hallmark of truly effective presidents, including Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, to name a few.
According to numerous associates and political observers, our President has never really felt comfortable with that aspect of his job. According to a top While House official, he has little patience for “the inevitable theatrics of Washington” and has been unable to decide whether he is of Washington or apart from it. Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett bluntly stated in an interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick that her boss was “just too talented to do what ordinary people do”! (emphasis added)
He eschews parties and mixers of all shapes and forms, and observers report that his arrogance, sense of superiority, air of haughtiness – and his amateurism – have been responsible for numerous political fiascos. Case in point: In September, 2011, Obama chose to make a rare appearance to address a joint session of Congress to lay our his agenda for job creation. Obama’s advisers and staff were unaware, however, that Congress was in recess, and his planned date for the appearance fell on the evening of a planned Republican presidential debate. Confounding this blatant error, the event was rescheduled to the date of the NFL season opener between the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints.
So what’s the take home for our President? He needs to “climb down from the tower” and mix and mingle with members of Congress of all stripes, particularly those in key positions to influence items on his agenda. Sure, it is laudable to spend evenings at home with one’s family. I firmly believe, however, that any President worth his or her salt must make it a point to regularly attend evening social events with fellow politicos. And what’s wrong with inviting John Boehner, the point person in the nerve wracking fiscal cliff negotiations, over to dinner, to be followed by sharing a drink or two in private. If our President really wants to come across as “one of the guys”, he should regularly make a surprise appearance at either house of Congress, showing up as an observer and mingler and making his presence known.
Cutting the Apron Strings
Two key women in Barack Obama’s life, his wife, Michelle, and her best friend Valerie Jarrett, have exerted a tremendous influence over his first term performance, an influence that has not necessarily been all to the good. Both Barack and Michelle appear beholden to Valerie, and Michelle and Valerie go way back to their mutual involvement in Chicago politics. Prior to Obama’s election Michelle held a cushy executive job at the University of Chicago Medical Center on Chicago’s south side where coincidentally Valerie was the center’s chairwoman.
Both Michelle and Valerie appear to be hell-bent on serving as the President’s prime political and strategic advisers. They both ran constant end-runs on Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel and together were instrumental in raising his frustration to the point where he finally resigned. Michelle frequently shows up unannounced at staff meetings and has incessantly harassed Hillary Clinton and other key White House staff. In a direct quote Obama states: “My staff worries a lot more about what the First Lad thinks than they worry about what I think, on a full range of issues.”
To the First Lady’s credit, she has championed the cause of combating childhood obesity: according to a recent MSN post her campaign already appears to be making a dent in this epidemic among our nation’s youth. Over the past year childhood obesity has declined for the first time in 30 years – the number of obese kids has fallen 5.5 percent in New York City, 5 percent in Philadelphia and 3 percent in Los Angeles.
It is well known within Washington inner circles, however, that Michelle has an intensely jealous streak regarding her husband’s interaction with any prominent women who may influence his policy decisions. Cases in point – Carolyn and Ethel Kennedy, Oprah and Hillary Clinton. Her frequent meddling in her husband’s working relations with these icons has had an extremely detrimental impact on his ability to effectively discharge his presidential duties.
Valerie Jarrett, the White House official responsible for the President’s “public engagement”, has conspicuously failed to engage. She carefully screens any and all outsiders who wish to interact with Obama and takes great pains to ensure that he only has access to an army of yes-men and yes-women who will jump at the chance to lend their tactic endorsement to his latest brain-child. According to a former high-ranking staff member, Valerie Jarrett’s modus operandi is to retain control over Barack and Michelle by creating fear –“She keeps the Obamas off balance and keeps them coming back to her…She keeps old friends and supporters away…Only the people she feels she can control get in.”
What would my advice be to Barack Obama regarding his interactions with these two extremely powerful women? I would candidly advise him to fire Jarrett. If he is too beholden to her to do so, then he should at least transfer her to a position where her damage can be drastically contained.
In regard to Michelle, if she insists on serving as Co-President than she needs to drop the “demure First Lady act”, be up front about her own political ambitions and be subject to the same level of scrutiny from the press and the general public that Hillary had to contend with when Bill was President. And yes, both the President and his spouse need to confront the detrimental influence that Michelle’s obsessive jealousy and meddling has caused during his first term.
Need to emerge as a risk taker and true leader
Barack Obama has been decidedly risk adverse during his first term, obsessively checking the polls rather relying on his heart and gut to guide him to do the right thing. His lack of decisive leadership has been an ongoing source of disappointment to many former supporters.
He has clearly failed to provide decisive leadership regarding the Mideast crisis. The day after the Libyan tragedy on September 11 he flew out to Las Vegas for a political rally and days earlier turned down a request for a meeting with Israel’s prime minister, who is rightfully concerned with saber rattling from Iran. Many observers criticize his overtures to leaders of rouge nations as a mix of flattery and apologies for U.S. behavior. In dealing with the nuclear threat posed by Iran, he has refused to draw a “red line” signaling that Iran cannot cross without incurring decisive action from the U.S.
Obama also has been roundly criticized for his administration’s failure to provide an expeditious response to the BP oil spill disaster in mid-2010. A minority report from the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works charges that multiple offers of assistance poured in from foreign governments, corporations and international bodies in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Yet despite the clear need for additional resources, the State Department dragged its feet for weeks before acting on any of these offers.
To his credit Obama, and his cohorts managed to secure passage of his signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act. Yet leadership from the President and his team in setting forth basic parameters for the bill was noticeably lacking. As formation of the law was punted to Congress, it is amazing that the final product – which is by no means unflawed – came out as good as it did.
Our President faces a number of serious tests to his leadership as his second term approaches.
In the wake of last week’s massacre of 26 elementary school students and staff in Newtown, Connecticut, Obama has appointed Biden to lead a team to fast-track specific legislative recommendations designed to stem our country’s epidemic of gun violence. Biden is to deliver his recommendations next month and the President has pledged to move swiftly to enact them.
Specifically Obama has cited the need to ban the sale of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, and to close existing loopholes that permit persons to purchase guns at gun shows without background checks. As we are all painfully aware, the powerful NRA anti-gun control lobby has intimidated representatives and senators on both sides of the aisle for decades. Yet many believe the balance has dramatically shifted over the past week, as Democrats are vocally pushing for change and many Republicans are now hesitant to speak out against gun control. If Obama, Biden, Sen. Diane Feinstein and others are able to enact comprehensive gun policy reform in January, they will have achieved a real milestone in ushering in responsible gun control.
The hand-wringing fiscal cliff crisis presents Obama with a formidable challenge AND an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership mettle. As this column goes to post he has stuck to his guns on insisting on restoration of the Clinton-era tax rates to persons with annual incomes of $250,000 or greater. If Obama and his fellow Democrats are able to persuade the GOP to approve a settlement that rightfully saddles the rich with their fair share of taxes, then he stands to emerge from this crisis with sterling leadership credentials.
In my opinion, the greatest leadership challenge our President faces in 2013 will deal with the need to face head-on a series of formidable issues that must be resolved before the Affordable Care Act kicks into full implementation the following year. As I discussed in the first three installments of my series “Reforming Health Care Reform”, the Affordable Care Act ushers in some very badly needed reforms to our broken health care system.
Yet the act is not without its flaws – and if swift decisive action is not forthcoming there is a strong likelihood that full implementation of the act – with its provisions to flood doctors’ offices with millions of new privately and publicly insured patients, and cutback on Medicare outlays by $716 billion over the next 10 years – will impose a travesty on our millions of seniors who rely on Medicare. Already many Medicare enrollees (myself and my wife included) experience extreme difficulty in accessing a doctor they really want to see who will take Medicare patients. The Affordable Act’s provisions to make to Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement one and the same, while flooding private doctors’ offices with millions of new patients, will predictably exacerbate current Medicare patients’ problems in accessing quality care in a timely manner, unless decision correction action is taken immediately by the Obama administration.
In my installment titled “Fixing Obamacare”, posted on October 29, I pose a number of cogent recommendations for averting this crisis. These recommendations will, however, require both extremely decisive leadership and hard choices within the context of an extremely narrow time window. I fervently hope that our recently re-elected President and his team are up to the challenge.
Again, the purpose of this critique is not to pan our newly re-elected President. After all, I am a Democrat and I voted for him. Rather, my goal has been to set forth some candid comments and criticism that may hopefully help Barack Obama and his team effectively carry out his upcoming second term. If our President is willing and able to get out of his head and into his heart and walk the high road, demonstrate unwavering loyalty to key supporters, get out there and rub elbows with representatives and senators on both sides of the aisle, curtail the unproductive influence of certain members of his inner circle who have impaired his first term performance, and prove to the American people his mettle as a risk taker and a decisive leader, then I believe he has an excellent chance of leaving behind a truly Presidential legacy as his second term draws to a close. I hope and pray that he chooses to follow that path.
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John Newport (Dr. John) is a centrist Democrat and an author, speaker and social commentator who lives in Tucson and loves the city and its people. He writes from the heart and has four books under his belt, together with over 200 articles focusing on personal and societal wellness, self-help and spirituality. His most recent book “The Tucson Tragedy: Lessons from the Senseless Shooting of Gabrielle Giffords”, was featured on Tucson channels 4 and 13 and in the FOX 11 forum, as well as on “Good Morning Arizona”. (For further information on this book visit www.healingtucson.net) He frequently contributes letters and opinion pieces to the Arizona Daily Star, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, The Therapist and other publications.