Every pundit, every op-ed writer, every Matt Damon has duly taken note of the essential elusiveness that is Barack Obama. Still, no one is answering, in a knowing, nailed-it-kind-of-way, the Elephant Question: Where did our president go? Why did he go there?
Guessing away, in this bewildered conversation about who and where Obama is, the commentators have come up with three big theories:
One: We have on our hands a confused weakling of a guy who has a good game of talk, and who, being a nice guy, means well. Truthfully, the latter has been losing some steam lately.
Two: He is a brilliant strategist, outmaneuvering us all, molding the middle to his pragmatic 2012 liking and forgetting the rest. Pouncing 'Obama's-a-socialist' Republicans and staving-off-the-fear progressives can be witnessed leaping on this one.
Three: We read him wrong. He was there all along -- just doing what candidates do, an unaudacious, middle-path guy speaking audaciously. We've been punk'd... without intention.
There is a there, but none of the above. It's on the page of personal history.
The answer is rough. It is Barack, all Barack. Barack, the black kid raised by white middle-class grandparents, abandoned by his dad, loved and semi-abandoned by his mom. The kid who had to fit in. And who had to do it on his own.
Too much psychology? No, we are all human beings, driven by personal experience to view and tackle the world and write our personal histories in unique ways. Flashcard: President 43 hot on the trail of Predecessor 41.
Young Barack learned to create his life by conciliation, by avoiding all appearance of being an angry young black man. By always avoiding conflict. By developing an abiding belief in his own gifts -- powers of charm and persuasion and conciliation -- to wend his way to what he wants. This is why our president, a fondness for whom many are no longer insisting upon, may not 'feel' clear and simple anger and has not yet channeled it to power. He has never had to before. Still, too much wending can result in a different kind of want, all process and no delivery -- the avoidance of the power of real power.
Some of this we already know, but have we acknowledged the real hold this has on Obama, and how much it explains where he lives?
Barack Obama perceives power through a particular personal lens. Power is bringing you over to his side, swaying you to his corner. Not facing you down, not putting you in your place, not seizing the day. When he beats you in a tough election, he appoints you to a major position -- partially perhaps to be sure you knew he didn't really mean it. He turns away from those who blood-fought for him and anoints a representative of The Yet Unconquered, evangelical Rick Warren, as the spiritual spokesman of his Inauguration.
I knew then we were in trouble. The list goes on. He awards a National Medal of Freedom to George Herbert Walker Bush. He praises a dead Ronald Reagan. Asked to name his 'line in the sand,' he replies that he has many and names none. These are the consistent, patterned actions of a votary of approval-seeking and compelled conciliation.
Obama creates a need for compromise. He makes up before the fight. A good man, who may mean well (it is not enough), Obama may not know how to go to the trenches and fight. How threatening might it have been to a brilliant black kid in an awfully white world, pretty much alone, on his way up? And up. Really, it is not just that it is not in his core. It seems aversive to him to oppose in a clear and direct way.
No one, at this point, needs a lengthy list of examples, ranging from the president's wavering on tax cuts (even when polls universally indicated that a large majority of Americans opposed the cuts and would have stood with him), to Afghanistan, to budget cut priorities, to... fill in the blank. This is not smart politics, this is stuck-record-psychology, a distinct pattern, now under the most intense of spotlights, shouting at us. Is it possible that our president is an addict to compromise disguised as a pragmatist?
Faced with an army of opponents who tend to the bully and the brute -- and, no, I am not implying all people on the Right fall into either category, although a few strong voices of reason on the Right would be welcome about now -- Obama has recreated the past pattern of his climb to success. By doing so, he may have turned away from any hope of real -- forgive me -- change.
Some will argue that Obama has been forced to compromise in the face of unyielding opponents. Another elephant in the room emerges: Had the president utilized the same charisma, vote-generating Internet machine that he and his team so stunningly engineered in 2008, might the 2010 election results have been very different? Had he encouraged prosecution, or even clear condemnation, of financial abuse and abusers, or of the false conduct of the Iraqi war, would he now be facing the same level of empowered opposition from the Right?
A man in steady conquest of The Next, Barack Obama is not a born leader. He is a man in a constant state of adaptation. A man in negotiation with himself. It is an agonizing realization. Is a 2012 reelection the full measure of success for the Barack Obama we fought so hard to elect short years ago? For him, perhaps yes. For us?
The president is a product of his past. As are we all. Until we're not. He is a brilliant man. And leaders can be born to themselves. And realization can lead to change. So far, his actions and inaction both, seen through the prism of his past, have been all too predictable. Do we really think that in January 2013, a truer Barack Obama will stand up? Not if pattern holds true.
We can hope for all our sakes -- the teachers, the children, and, oh yes, the brave American workers who have no work -- that President Obama takes a different road -- one that requires courage of a spiritual level equal to the physical courage of our young warriors sent (now, by him) in harm's and horror's way. Come back, sir. We need you in the field. It is a last great challenge.
Sharon O'Connell is a writer, producer, executive consultant to policy, arts, education and non-profit organizations, former Executive Director of The Creative Coalition and former Director of Special Projects at the Committee for Economic Development.
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