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Lowell Thompson Headshot

Barack Obama, The Token President?

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Oh, the irony.

The very personality traits that made him appealing to enough "whites" to elect him the first "black" president of the U.S. of A. may prevent Barack Obama from being the transformative leader America desperately needs now.

Of course it's still way too early to tell, but I'm getting that same queasy gut I got during Barack's now famous "Race" speech.

I gave him a gentleman's B at the time. My un-colored friends (who gave him an ecstatic A+) asked "Why?". I said, "because he didn't go far enough in acknowledging the realities of race in America and the legitimacy of Reverend Wright's grievance if not his rhetorical excess." No, Obama only said what he knew would to play to the "white" liberal masses, and not a mumblin' word more.

But deep down I understood that sometimes you have to play to the crowd. Sometimes you have to smile a little wider than you feel to get the job. As a "first black" many times in the big ad agencies in the late '60s and 70s, I know the drill.

But now that he's got the job, he has to perform or become the old token "black" of that era -- whose most important qualification was that he was sufficiently "melanous" -- if you know what I mean -- to fill corporate affirmative action guidelines. A nice smile and a non-threatening manner helped too.

Barack would have been a shoo-in.

Remember his then-opponent Joe Biden's famous foot-in-the-mouth soundbite during the Democratic primary? "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," he said. "I mean, that's a storybook, man." It was Joe's ingenuous way of expressing what many felt, including some "black" folks who knew the realities of making it in white America.

Here was a telegenic, intelligent, well-spoken family man whose life seemed lived to become a First Black something. No Clinton-Kennedyesque rumors of bimbos in his closet or under his bed (or desk).

But, as I quickly found out in my early days in the ad game, if you can't do the job a lot better than your "white" co-workers, you soon become as mobile in your career as the giant mahogany table in the client conference room. Tokenism may get you in but it didn't get you anywhere else.

Barack Hussein Obama, the candidate who had to assuage "white" fears to get elected is now the President who must show us all the way to a new America. In normal times, his Nice-Guy-in-Chief persona would be fine. But eight years of incredible incompetence at best, criminal malfeasance at worst, has put us in a very, very scary place. All apologies to Tina Turner, but we don't need another token. We don't need an Affirmative-Action President. We do need another hero -- of the Abe Lincoln/Franklin Roosevelt variety. Fast.

The verdict is still out, but does Obama suffer from the condition I named after the politician I think personified it -- Clintonitis? I define it as "the debilitating condition that causes a great politician never to be capable of becoming a great leader". There seems to be something about the skills it takes to win the approval of the majority of Americans in an election that mitigates against the kind of backbone it takes to really lead once you're in office. I said Lead, not manage and make eloquent, feel-good speeches. Leadership requires the ability to take people where they've never been...and make them like it. But the leader must be sure of where he wants to go.

Obama has shown he has the skills of a great politician. But does he have the vision and strength of purpose to become a great leader? Both Lincoln and Roosevelt were big question marks at this point in their presidencies, so there's still time.

But not much.

You didn't ask lil' ol' Lowell, but here's my advice. Your name is Obama, not Oprah. You were "hired" to change this country before it's too late, not to make "white" housewives in Paducah feel good about themselves because they let your family move into the White House on their block. Let Ms. Winfrey be their only "black" friend. You're the "Leader of the Free World".

Lead.