An Opportunity for Greatness

12/07/2010 10:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Charles Perez Journalist, ABC News Anchor and former talk show host based in Miami

Barack Obama has a choice: He can either rise to the circumstances that are before him with the kind of bold transformative action he promised or he can continue to preside over the slowest recovery in American history. Though both the stock market and the value of American corporations have increased dramatically since he came to office, history will paint his presidential performance as lackluster for his failure to rise to the great challenge of his day, unless he charts a new course. If he does so, he has the opportunity to be a great president. If he does not, history will define him as largely forgettable, tucked between the controversial George W. Bush and whoever gets the benefit of this slow moving recovery. The choice is his.

The truth is that Obama came into office with enough weights tied to his legs to have sunk the most capable of men. Faced with that reality, he has not only managed to swim but to stop the downward trajectory of American greatness and the American economy. He has rounded out the bottom of the curve. Unfortunately, he will likely be remembered for the bum economy even if he is the one who kept us from disaster. George W. Bush, whose memoirs are flying off the shelves (selling an impressive 1.1 million copies in its first two weeks in release), may skate through history as "The Decider" and get credit for being a decisive leader even though he campaigned against nation-building and made decisions that likely drove us into the steep decline that is now Obama's to own -- and to turn around. The lesson here is: What you campaign on may be far different than what the practical realities of your time in office may demand that you do. It is time Barack Obama give up what he said he would do during his campaign. Granted, he inherited much of the situation he now finds himself in, but it is now his to fix. There have been many presidents who pined for the opportunity to show their greatness, and history never quite delivered. This time it has. What will he do with it?

The likely outcome is that whoever succeeds him, Republican or Democrat, will get credit for America's recovery. They will be the political equivalent of Katie Couric to Obama's Deborah Norville. That is why his only real choice is to act independently from politics and take the bold action that any true political leader will lack the courage to do.

I voted for Barack Obama because I believed he could restore faith in America around the world. I believed he was smart and capable of navigating the mine filled waters and nuances of international diplomacy. I wanted him to close Guantanamo Bay and end the ban on gays in the military. At home, I believed he would restore a reverence for science and education in America. And, I believed he was capable of reversing the growing income disparity between the super rich and the rest of us. I believed he would make America a better place. Now I see all that disappearing in the face of an electorate who would vote for Bristol Palin on Dancing With The Stars regardless of whether she can dance. It's disturbing.

The president needs to win if the American people are to win. But, in order for him to do so, he needs to do what no one on the left or right will do. He needs to stand in the political abyss at the center and convince the American public that he is not the Democrat's president and not the Republican's enemy. He needs to become the man who will do what is right, even if it pisses everyone off and costs him a second term. And what is right in America today is to get our economic house in order.

Though Republicans ran in 2010 on cutting expenditures and cutting taxes, they have said or done nothing to show how or where they would cut expenditures or how tax cuts would be paid for. It is an easy position to take if you never have to do it. Democrats have wanted to close the revenue gap by allowing the temporary Bush tax cuts on the wealthy to expire but have yet to show any serious effort to cut expenditures. The result is a compromise on Bush era tax cuts and unemployment spending that once again sees expenditures increase and revenue decline. In the short term, everyone gets what they want as America moves closer and closer to eventual foreclosure. It is not a good scenario.

The only way out is for President Obama to do what no one on either side wants him to do or expects him to do. As Andrew Sullivan so poignantly expressed on The Chris Matthews' Show this past weekend, he needs to stand before Congress and the American people and say, "We are going to increase revenues and cut expenditures and nothing is off the table. It is the only way we will save the America we all collectively want for ourselves and for generations to come. It will hurt on both sides and I will make it my mission to see this through, even if it means I am a one-term president."

Then, he must take the lead and offer-up cuts in spending that will throw the Democrats into a tail spin, and revenue increases which will reverse what has become the most gross concentration of wealth in the smallest percentage of people since the gilded age. Nobody will be happy, but president Obama will position himself as the only adult in the room.

As a result, he could face a challenge in his own party for the 2012 nomination, but it will only strengthen him with moderates and fiscal conservatives. On the right, he will face a challenge from yet another Republican who will charge that Obama is a socialist who is punishing the rich. But their charge will be empty if he is standing by cuts on the other side.

In the center is an electorate that believes that neither political party has the courage to do what has to be done. If Barack Obama shows he has that courage, he may steal the thunder from both sides, and surprisingly define himself as the man who rose to the challenge and not only avoided the iceberg, but redirected America on a new course toward economic and fiscal sanity. That action, alone, would likely do more to reinvigorate every aspect of the economy, American entrepreneurship and faith in America than anything either the Democrats or the Republicans have been able to muster.

The president needs to rally all of us around the reality of our circumstances and toward an inspiring vision of what America could be in 10 to 20 years if we change course. If he can do this, the chorus of support he will generate will force both parties in Congress to support him and not only may he win re-election, but he may find his place as one of America's great presidents.