06/30/2011 10:09 am ET Updated Aug 28, 2011

The Obama-Shaped Leadership Void

One of my purposes in this column is to help myself and my readers understand a rudderless country with a feckless president, a military caste with an entitlement complex, an aggressive right wing, and dangerous and self-righteous religious extremists. I mean, of course, the United States.

I want to write this week about President Obama, or rather about the Obama-shaped hole where a national leader should be. This is a delicate matter, because I don't want to give aid and comfort to my country's already smug and cocky right-wing forces, and I'm as aware as any white man can be of how perilous it can be for a black man to be publicly angry or assertive in America. But I want to know where the president I voted for has gone. I suspect he was never really there in the first place. Obama talked a good game circa 2008-09, to be sure. Remember his Cairo speech, in which he reached out so eloquently to the Muslim world? How long ago that now seems.

In 2008, the entire world was thoroughly fed up with Bush and his gang of bullies. Fortunately for everyone, so were most Americans. So Obama won handily, and it felt like -- to borrow, with distaste, the triumphalist phrase coined by Ronald Reagan in 1984 -- morning in America. But surely any presentable fellow over the constitutional age of 35 could have defeated the grumpy codger John McCain and his wacky lady sidekick, so what was really so special about Obama after all?

Maybe he just seemed great, by comparison with the alternative. The real problem is that, from decades of sitting on couches passively ingesting sitcoms and Hollywood movies, Americans have learned too well how to manufacture happy endings. What we don't understand is that if something has to be manufactured, it wasn't real in the first place.

In March 2009 in Mumbai, I asked the Indian filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt if he thought the demonization of the Muslim world so prevalent in America during the Bush years could be changed under Obama.

"I wonder," he replied. "I don't think even America, in spite of the happy ending that you have superimposed on this tragic situation, is really going to look unflinchingly at what you have done over the last eight years to the world. ... I think that the American dream of a black man in the White House is a yarn that the young people of America made into a concrete reality. That is not to take away the charm and the charisma of the man. He has a charm, he has a charisma. But what is the magic wand that he can flash and resolve the problem?"

It remains more than fair to blame Bush, and we did lay heavy expectations and high hopes on Obama. But he asked for the job, and all too plainly he's not up to it. For starters he spent too much time and political capital passing a long-overdue system of universal health-care coverage, and he has dealt badly -- indeed dishonestly -- not only with the two wars that Bush left in his lap, but also with the enormous banking bailout, real estate collapse, and financial scandals that have severely damaged America's national economy and morale. But his real failure has been a fundamental failure of leadership, even of mere presence.

Politics is often an art of indirection and tactical inaction, but "No Drama Obama" has been culpably passive in an office, and at a moment, that call for action. Quite possibly he really is not-so-secretly a plutocrat at heart anyway -- otherwise why would he make a point of being photographed cordially golfing with the very chieftain of the enemy faction that's trying to destroy him, Speaker of the House John Boehner?

What's most galling is that he's so high-minded and self-congratulatory that he considers himself above politics, as if that were where a president should situate himself. By trying at every turn to "work with" his domestic opponents -- who have shown they will stop at nothing to undermine and discredit him, whatever he does or says -- he has left those of us who voted for him without the advocate in the corridors of power that we thought we were electing.

This state of affairs leaves America today more divided, directionless, and demoralized even than during the last years of Bush. Like a frightened, wounded elephant, such an America is dangerous to the world as a whole. And here comes the latest edition of the uniquely interminable American election cycle, with a passel of Republican candidates, ranging from the insipid (Mitt Romney) to the demagogic (Michele Bachmann), already lining up. Obama might win reelection anyway, but so what?

Anyway, I'm tired of psychoanalysing American presidents, as if the country -- indeed the world -- were some giant Rorschach test for the ego, grandiose ambitions, and magical thinking predilections of a single man, whoever that man might be. Obama is not entitled to inflict his high-toned passivity in the guise of "civility" on America and the world, any more than Bush was entitled to bully and browbeat us all.

What America and the world need is real leadership that's both legitimate and robust, with a spine, a moral compass, and a sense of direction.

Republished from Dawn.

Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004) and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010). He is currently writing Bearing the Bruise: A Lifetime in Haiti, to be published in early 2012. Web: or