Note: This item has been modified since the original posting on December 10 in response to reader comments.
Beating out his opponent by a narrow lead in the popular vote, Barack Obama secured his re-election on November 6. The question still remains – should his re-election be viewed as an endorsement of our President’s first term performance and policies, or should it more correctly be viewed as a clear rejection of an archaic platform favoring the wealthy elite that the GOP’s power center attempted to cram down our throats?
To be sure, both candidates made their share of gaffes during this particularly mean spirited campaign. While Barack Obama managed to get re-elected, his first term performance has fallen short of his lavish promises to the American people. As he prepares for his re-inauguration in January the burning question on my mind, and the minds of millions of fellow Americans, is – can he take a cold hard look at both his successes and his mistakes over the past four years, and take to heart the lessons he needs to learn in order to remake his presidency and effectively lead our nation during these extremely troubled times? That pivotal question forms the focus of this two-part series.
Why this critique?
When I voted for Obama the first time I was buoyed by hope and enthusiasm. Like millions of voters, I was sick and tired of eight years of unfunded wars and welfare for the rich, and hungry for change. I was particularly inspired by Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream” and was convinced that he was our man!
To our President’s credit he has done much to move our country forward during his first term, despite being hamstrung by an obstructionist GOP-dominated Congress over the past two years. Landmark accomplishments include his signature Affordable Care Act, repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, badly needed banking regulation reform, and student loan and credit reform. I also credit him with averting a possible depression by bailing out the auto industry early in his term. By the same token I have, along with many others, been disturbed by many aspects of both his style and demeanor that I believe have seriously detracted from his effectiveness over the past four years. The purpose of this two-installment series is to provide a (hopefully) constructive critique of his performance, highlighting salient items that I hope our President and his advisers may take to heart as his second term approaches.
This year I once again voted for Obama. Extremely disillusioned with his first four years in office, this time I cast my ballot with considerable reluctance. As a public health professional and social commentator, the main reason I voted for Obama this time was my firm conviction that his signature first term accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, provides a workable starting point for badly needed health care reform.
Even on that score I initially flirted with voting for Romney: After all, he had demonstrated impressive bipartisan leadership as Governor of our nation’s most liberal state, and had implemented a universal health coverage program in Massachusetts that served as the prototype for Obamacare. As it became evident, however, that Romney had been forced to sell his soul to appease his party’s arch conservative power base, I chose to cast my lot with Obama once again.
Almost from his first day in office, I harbored a disconcerting sense of incongruity between the lofty ideals that Obama set forth so eloquently in his campaign rhetoric and the shocking realities of his first term performance.
Earlier this year I read Edward Klein’s book: “The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House”. Klein is, to be sure, a staunch detractor of our President who goes overboard in zealously embracing the “socialist conspiracy” diatribe in reference to Obama’s so-called “hidden agenda”. Nonetheless, “The Amateur” is a well-documented piece of work based on painstaking interviews with hundreds of members of Obama’s inner and outer circles. As I read this book, many of the pieces began to come together concerning my own discomfort with the chasm between our President’s campaign promises and the realities of his first term.
While Obama garnered an overwhelming victory in terms of electoral votes, his lead in the popular vote was nothing to write home about. My biggest fear is that our newly re-elected President and his team will view the election results as a mandate for “four more years of the same”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, if Obama aspires to emerge as a true leader during these extremely challenging times and leave behind a truly presidential legacy, he must take to heart some very serious lessons he needs to learn based on his first term in office.
Walk the walk
In a nutshell, Obama must whole-heartedly focus on getting beyond the rhetoric and truly walk the walk in terms of translating his lofty promises into reality. Being a charismatic campaigner is one thing – serving as a truly effective president requires a very disparate set of attributes and skills, including the qualities of accessibility, candor and focused determination. On many occasions these qualities have been sorely lacking in Obama’s performance over the first four years. In particular, our President needs to take the reins in his hands and assume a truly presidential stature. In this regard, a healthy dose of humility would be most helpful.
To be blunt, the public persona that he projects is too slick and overly cerebral, and too often he comes across as believing that the day-to-day political maneuvering that goes with the territory is beneath him. He has failed to win the trust of the American people. To do so he must get out of his head and into his heart.
The words of an eminent Chicago based physician, Dr. David Schneider, as related to author Edward Klein are instructive here. According to Dr. Schneider, who served as Obama’s personal physician for 22 years, “…he is a great speaker and a lousy communicator…He isn’t getting his message across to the people. He isn’t showing that he really cares. To this day he hasn’t communicated with members of Congress!” (emphasis added) Dr. Schneider goes on to state that Obama simply has “too much of the University of Chicago in him” – that he is overly aloof and academic, lacks passion and feeling, and doesn’t have the sense of humanity that one would expect to see in a president.
His Finest Hour
One January 12, 2011, while I was putting together my most recent book “The Tucson Tragedy: Lessons from the Senseless Shooting of Gabrielle Giffords”, I was one of 26,000 people who attended President Obama’s memorial speech at the University of Arizona just four days after the shooting. Speaking from the depths of his being, he brought tears to the eyes of many attendees including myself. In this heartwarming talk he reminded us of the decency of the vast majority of Americans and underscored the need “to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together”. He delivered compassionate eulogies for each of the six victims slain that day and in closing, challenged us to live up to the expectations of the youngest victim, nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, whose tragic death serves as a poignant reminder to all Americans that we can – and must – do better.
To be sure, our President’s healing message delivered just four days after the tragic shooting of our beloved Congresswoman and eighteen others, was a definite turning point in our heart-broken community’s ability to move forward from tragedy to healing. It was, in my opinion, his finest hour. Unfortunately, the dignity and compassion pouring from our leader’s heart that evening has often been lacking in his day to day interaction with government representatives on both sides of the aisle and with the American people.
Failure to Take the High Road
Shortly after Obama’s inauguration I became profoundly disenchanted with his inability to take the high road in regard to critical junctures confronting him early in his term. I was equally disappointed with the relative lack of criticism from the press concerning these disturbing incidents.
The first incident took the form of Obama’s blatant opportunism concerning the appointment of Roland Burris, by discredited Governor Rod Blagojevich, to fill the Illinois election seat about to be vacated by Obama’s inauguration as President. Blagojevich’s appointment of Burris on December 30, 2008 was extremely controversial, as the Governor was already under investigation for allegedly seeking bribes in a pay-to-play scheme for the empty Senate seat. While Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White registered the appointment in the official state records on December 31, White declined to sign the Senate’s certification form.
On January 5, 2009, Secretary of the U.S. Senate Nancy Erickson rejected Burris’ certificate of appointment as invalid, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Illinois senior Senator Dick Durbin agreed with Erickson that Senate rules required the Illinois Secretary of State’s signature on the certification form.
On January 9 the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the Senate appointment only required the signature of the Governor to make the appointment valid. Informed sources allege that behind-the-scenes maneuvering on the part of President-Elect Obama and his cronies most likely played an instrumental role in the Illinois Supreme Court decision. Furthermore, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was pressured by Obama to retract his initial statement that the Senate would not seat Burris. Thus Roland Burris was sworn into the Senate “under a cloud” on January 15, and Governor Blagojevich was subsequently removed from office and sent to prison.
While it is understandable that Obama and his advisers were chafing at the bit to ensure a filibuster-proof super majority in the Senate as he entered office, his behind-the-scenes maneuvering to ensure that Burris would gain “back-door entry” to the Senate via appointment by a highly discredited Governor was both highly controversial and simply the wrong thing to do.
Indeed, Obama’s credibility in terms of bringing truly presidential qualities to the office would have been infinitely better served if he had stood the moral high ground in this matter. Specifically, he should have come forth publicly and urged Burris to demonstrate that he was, indeed, the best candidate for the job by running for the seat in a special election. The highly questionable appointment of Burris by the ousted Governor should have been set aside, and Obama could have then returned to Illinois to vigorously campaign on his behalf. Had this been the case, I believe there is an excellent chance that Burris would have won the election. And most importantly, Obama would have begun his term in office as a trusted friend of the people who elected him.
In addition to his failure to take the high road on numerous occasions over the course of his first term, Barack Obama has repeatedly let down both his ardent supporters and the American people over the past four years. Read on for details in the next installment.
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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.