Conciliator-in-Chief

It was a brilliant electoral strategy. After years of hyper-partisanship, then-Senator Obama offered himself up as a national palliative who could heal the bitterly divided republic. His biracial background made him the very personification of bridge-builder who could fuse left and right, just as he himself was a fusion of black and white.

Obama wasn’t naïve, of course. The soaring rhetoric and candy promises of national reconciliation were nothing more than a clever ruse to win the White House. He understood that politics is warfare by other means, a ruthless mix of personal ambition and demagoguery that, however unlikely, occasionally yielded the common good. A sales pitch that worked brilliantly on the campaign trial could not function as a governing philosophy. Yet it became just that.

Obama’s first term is winding down, and though the man remains a mystery, shielded by a preternatural aloofness, his leadership style is not. About the president’s deeply held beliefs there can be no doubt; he actually hopes to achieve a modus vivendi with an opposition that has no interest in reaching one. By seeking to resuscitate an ailing country while trying to bring on board his political foes, he has achieved neither.

The president’s frustratingly flexible spine came into focus during the row over his first legislative priority, the economic stimulus. When conservatives bemoaned the package’s size, Obama meekly tried to curry their favor by loading about a third of the $787 billion measure with tax cuts that would have little short-term impact. Later, fear mongering about healthcare reform, subsequently characterized by House Speaker as a harbinger of “Armageddon,” was met with Obama’s preemptively taking the public option off the table. His reward: a tepid bill.

Obama also played nice with his implacable rivals in other ways. The president’s not having met in person with Stanley McChrystal in the months subsequent to choosing him to lead the war in Afghanistan was a tempest in a teapot contrived by Fox News blowhards and their like searching for a useful political bludgeon. Yet Obama, strangely sensitive to such criticism, arranged a twenty-minute one-on-one on the tarmac with McChrystal when the president retrieved his Nobel Prize in Copenhagen. The message to McChrystal was unclear; that to Obama’s critics was not: he could be easily rolled.

Why Obama is conciliatory by instinct is a matter of speculation. Perhaps it stems from his upbringing—his mother’s emphasis on good manners or the Indonesian cultural disposition to avoid direct confrontation, both chronicled in last week’s New York Times—or maybe successfully negotiating a society deeply hostile to blacks, and black men in particular, made him too eager to please. (Obama writes in Dreams from my Father: “People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves…They were relieved—such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.”). Or possibly the president just understands what is politically possible.

What is clear is that a half-loaf is not necessarily better than no loaf at all when the famished patient is at death’s door. The poorly crafted and inadequately small stimulus failed to provide much of a jolt to a deeply troubled economy that continues to be an albatross around Democrats’ necks. A more ambitious package without the sops to the right, which didn’t support the bill regardless (no House Republican voted for it while just three in the Senate did) would have been far better, politically and economically. The same goes for his tepid healthcare reform.

But the lack of presidential leadership is most glaring with respect to combating the pernicious right-wing philosophy that has prevailed for decades and that has helped create a debt-ridden society serving only the interests of the monied few. Obama needs to fight back, calling out conservatives for seeking to loot the country’s wealth, its resources, its very future. What’s he got to lose? Nearly half of Republicans think he’s a treacherous foreigner anyway.

The president’s brilliant recent speech at George Washington University defending the welfare state offers hope that he does have fire in his belly. It will take more than momentary brilliance to win the day, however. A sustained commitment from a leader with the courage of his convictions is required. But if this president’s past is prologue, his still-to-come epilogue promises to be a painfully conciliatory slog. Satirist Andy Borowitz’s ironic headline brilliantly captures the essence of our Conciliator-in-Chief: “In Latest Compromise with GOP, Obama Agrees He is a Muslim.”

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