Let Obama Be Obama

August 26, 2009

If ever there was a how about leadership it was The West Wing.  There is an episode at the end of season one called Let Bartlet Be Bartletin which Josh, Toby, Sam and CJ spend the day dangling their feet “in the water of whatever the hell it is [they] dangle [their] feet in when [they] want to make it look like [they’re] trying without pissing too many people off!” (Two waters they’re dangling their feet in throughout this episode are FEC appointees and repealing the appalling don’t ask don’t tell policy.) It’s a rather slow moving episode, though it makes strong arguments for all the waters, but the last act is really where it’s at.

President Bartlet and Leo get into an argument over some polling numbers and fear they’re losing what little political capital they have – and, more importantly, losing hold of their ideals.  Leo tells the president: “Everything you do says, ‘For God’s sake, Leo.  I don’t want to be a one-term president.’” The argument continues:

Bartlet: You brought me in on teacher.  You brought me in on capital gains.  You brought me in on China.  And you brought me in on guns.

Leo: Brought you in from where? You’ve never been out there on guns.  You’ve never been out there on teachers.  You dangle your feet, and I’m the hall monitor around here.  It’s my job to make sure nobody runs too fast or goes off too far. …

Bartlet: Leo, if I ever told you to get aggressive about campaign finance or gays in the military, you would tell me, “Don’t run too fast or go too far.”

Leo: If you ever told me to get aggressive about anything, I’d say “I serve at the pleasure of the President.’ …You want to see me orchestrate this right now? You want to see me mobilize these people? These people who would walk into fire if you told them to.  These people who showed up to lead.  …

Bartlet: This is more important than reelection.  I want to speak now.

Leo: Now we’re in business. 

Leo then scribbles something on a pad of paper; Bartlet asks him if there’s a strategy and Leo says he has the beginning of one, showing him the pad of paper.  Written on it in bold letters is “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.” Leo then goes back into his office where Josh, Toby, Sam and CJ are waiting for him.  He says to his young and eager staff: 

If we want to walk into walls, I’d want us running into them full speed.  …And we’re gonna lose some of these battles, and we might even lose the White House, but we’re not gonna be threatened by issues.  We’re gonna put them front and center.  We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy.

Leo’s sentiment is simple:  Let Bartlet Be Bartlet; let the president be the leader he is, eschewing political pressure and instead leading from a place of honesty, integrity and sincerity.  The plan was to champion the sides of issues Bartlet truly believed in, rather than what he and his staff concluded would score him political points.  Fast forward two episodes and, with this strategy in place, their approval rating shot up nine points (an astounding feat for anyone who knows numbers!)

Right now I wish Rahm would Let Obama Be Obama.

Bill Maher wishes that too.  The final New Rule of his August 14th show pleaded with the president to “Be who you are… a basketball-playing, Jay-Z-listening, arugula-eating hipster.” Excellent rule.  One that should not be broken.

It seems to me that between the health care tailspin, weak-ass and industry favorable environmental laws and gross inaction on equality (with particular regard to gay issues), Obama is whussing out on many of his campaign promises.

For example, during the campaign he was a big proponent of a single-payer health care system, really the only system that makes sense.  Now, there’s nary a public-option in the watered down bills being bandied about, one of the most egregious of which is from the unfortunately name Group of Six. (For a terrific analysis of the genesis of these ill-formed health care bills, read Matt Taibbi’s latest treasure in the current issue of Rolling Stone – the one with the boys from Liverpool on the cover. And check out the online video in which Taibbi breaks down his argument.  Here’s a brilliant excerpt from the article to whet your palate: “Last spring, when [Obama] met with Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the co-chair of the Congressional progressive Caucus, Obama openly said [he wanted a single payer system]. ‘He said if he were starting from scratch, he would have a single-payer system,’ says Woolsey.  ‘But he thought it wasn’t possible, because it would disrupt the health care industry.’ Huh? This isn’t a small point:  The president and the Democrats decided not to press for the only plan that makes sense for everyone, in order to preserve an industry that is not only cruel and stupid and dysfunctional, but through its rank inefficiency has necessitated the very reforms now being debated.” Seriously – go read the article!)

Obama has embarrassingly back-peddled on gay rights.  (Stop pandering to religious fanatics; you’re not one and the people who worked so hard to elect you aren’t them either; furthermore, just as Aristotle claimed the law is reason free from passion, our founding fathers ensured that the law is also reason free from religious doctrine.) Fortunately, supporters of logic, I mean equality, won’t let POTUS or Congress off the hook so easily.  Spearheaded by Cleve Jones, October 11, 2009 will see passionate people marching on Washington to demand equality. The Broadway community is rallying the troops, with the producers of Hair going so far as to cancel that day’s matinee performance so the beautiful hippies can be a part of the march.  Visit Broadway Impact for more details.

And the compromises made in the attempt to curb the climate crisis have fallen short of what many experts say is needed.  In issue 1085 of Rolling Stone, NASA’s director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and leading environmentalist James Hansen offered criticism of the administration’s lackluster efforts.  The interviewer says of Obama, “He seems to be saying, ’The current climate bill is the best we can get, given the political realities’.” Hansen sharply replies, “That wouldn’t be true if he took a stronger position.” Amen.

Obama is a leader.  He certainly acted like one in the campaign.  That was what was so inspiring about him as a candidate.  He seemed like he was going to change the ballgame.  And now, when he’s actually in a position to make the changes we want to see, he’s appearing spineless. 

In the same issue of Rolling Stone, Michael Moore was part of a three person panel assembled to discuss the administration along with Paul Krugman and David Gergen.  The biggest surprise of all was that Moore came off as the optimist of the group.  Seriously.  Michael Moore sounded like Pollyanna. It was bizarre.  But, he made a point which could quiet my aspersions, cast above.  Moore seems to think that this is Obama’s plan; he’s lulling the “defense’ into a false sense of security and then just when the moment is right, he’ll unleash his arsenal of leadership and executive power and put all the dunces in time-out. And put us on a better track. I hope he’s right.

This isn’t to say that Obama isn’t a good president.  Surely, it’s much too early to tell.  He has made strides and leaps; he’s helped to restore (most) of the world’s goodwill toward us; he has showed grace under fire; and he speaks to us like we’re intelligent people.  Thank you, POTUS.  As an intelligent person, I appreciate that.  It’s a shame that the bar was left so low by W that a man who can put together a cogent sentence is seen as such a vast improvement – we really must demand more and better of the people we choose to represent us.  I’m glad we have an executive who values intelligence and thought and care and analysis and science.

But President Obama is lagging on his campaign promises.  In Wicked, the wonderfully schmaltzy and touching musical juggernaut that teaches us to love who we are, green gal Elphaba warns us, “Don’t lose sight of who you are.”  Mr. President, take it from a colored girl – don’t lose sight of who you are.  Let Obama Be Obama.