If you voted for Obama believing he’d be a better president than John McCain, then you have no reason to be disappointed.
Then again, if you voted for Obama believing he could actually correct all the wrongs he cited in his campaign, then either it’s too early to tell or you expected too much.
The momentum of the herd of problems Obama inherited, like stampeding cattle, cannot be turned around with one shot of executive action, no matter how powerful it is or well aimed. Real change takes time. Even so, the record of recent occupants of the Oval Office suggests that actions taken in the early months tell a lot about what eventually developed; the first moves are the most revealing. So, what can we conclude after six months?
Scan the context. There are a thousand and one things demanding President Obama’s attention, some deemed urgent—universal health care, the plunging economy, closing Gitmo, leaving Iraq, subduing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, arresting the spread of nuclear weapons—others appear less urgent—reforms in immigration, education and energy policy, eliminating DADT, setting pollution standards, holding the previous administration accountable for mendacity and malefactions.
The great jubilation and hope of hundreds of thousands of people gathered the day after the election in Grant Park, Chicago to celebrate Obama’s victory was shared by millions across the country. Such extreme joy inevitably fades.
For example, on that same day, Nov. 5, 2008, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker addressed an open letter that began “Dear Brother Obama” and ended, “In Peace and Joy.” The letter was suffused with loving advice summarized in urging the brother to preserve his soul as a prerequisite for being “a credible leader.” Eight months later (July 2009) the same author addressed an open letter that began “Dear President Obama” and ended, “With loving kindness and despite the gravity of the subject, Joy.” That grave subject is identified and encapsulated in the fourth paragraph:
“Ringing in my ears is something I thought I heard you say: America does not torture. And if this is true, now, under your watch, this letter is unnecessary. I also thought I heard you say indefinite detention without charge was gone with the wind of George Bush’s administration. Was I wrong?”
The contrast between the first letter’s unrestrained loving advice and the second’s unvoiced subtext of disappointment is apparent.
It would take super-human wisdom to order the multitude of problems President Obama faces and if he had the genius to do it, then the order chosen would no doubt be susceptible to change, to trial and error. There are just too many problems in too many areas. Multidimensional chaos is not easily quieted by linear triage.
Where do we stand? Did we who voted for Barack Obama get what we voted for? Sure, he was obliged to hang onto the tails of dozens of tigers bequeath to him by George W and not surprisingly up to now none have been caged. Is it, then, too early to tell?
Perhaps not. Certain acts stand out and although they do not merit ecstatic applause they do indicate Obama’s direction and his style.
The direction, sad to say, differs ever so slightly from the one set by at least four of his predecessors: our values are universal values on which we must rely if we are to lead the world and solve its problems. From this basic principle Obama decided to send more troops to Afghanistan; to withhold from the public some photos of torture; to not release and not prosecute some prisoners; to order some soldiers to remain in Iraq. And at home he decided that some financial institutions must be saved, others left to die out, that forty-some million must get government paid health insurance and the rest covered by the insurance industry.
Bush based foreign policy on the belief that other countries could not solve their problems unless they “…go about it in the same way as the United States” (Reference Eric Alterman, The Nation, July 6). Consequently, any country that is not with us is against us.
Obama, on the other hand, does not divide the world. In Cairo, on June 4, he was conciliatory: “The cycle of suspicion and discord must end” and up-front: “Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”
When it comes to style, Barack is very nearly the opposite of George. Barack is smart, eloquent and confident; he writes books. George was dull, inarticulate and insecure and boasted of not reading books. George spoke in simplistic terms: Iran was evil, Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) was a dictator and Evo Morales (Bolivia) a socialist. But Obama shook hands with Ahmedinejad and thanked Chavez for the gift of a book.
George made a big deal of declaring the mission in Iraq accomplished although the nature of the mission was unclear even after its accomplishment. And he never admitted to mistakes.
Where Bush was provocative, Obama is flexible; where Bush was divisive, Obama is appeasing. This aspect of Obama’s style is on display even in a molehill event made mountainous: he offered one hand to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the other to James Crowley, the policeman who “stupidly” arrested Gates in his own home. Generally, Obama seems to view all opponents as potentially cooperative.
Style, the manner in which actions are taken, is a combination of background, training and experience. Intelligently deployed style always overlaps with substance, in some areas more so than in others. For instance, style is essential in Alice Walker’s profession, less so in Obama’s,
I am disappointed with what the man I voted for has done—I confess I expected too much—but I greatly admire his style. If he becomes the “credible leader” Alice Walker wants him to be, if Obama’s imprint on history lifts us out of the mess we’ve been in for so long then it will have been facilitated, I think, by his unique style.
Marvin Chachere is a San Pablo resident.