Does Obama's "Yes we can" still work in a country of "No?"
Published on August 17, 2011
I remember so clearly. Bush was on his way out. Shoes were flying, the haggard old guy seemed more unable to construct a coherent thought than ever, and a skinny optimistic young multiracial politician was on his way to shake things up in a big way. Really big. We were going to finally get the significant kinds of changes we wanted for so long. Sure, there was the spectacular excitement of electing a President with a uniquely different ethnic background different than "boring white man", however he wasn't up there just because of race. Obama was speaking to us during his campaign in a way we hand't heard from a politician before.
The guy was cool under pressure, brushed off insults like little crumbs on a jacket, and never seemed shook, or scared to be frank. After watching Hillary rant and rave, and go negative, Obama stayed smiling, and when McCain and Palin threw everything they possibly could at him, including implications that was a terrorist sympathizer he just laughed it off and spoke of greater things. He spoke of change till we were deaf in the ear, and it sounded good, at least until we went deaf. He spoke of audacity, of saying "YES!" and believing in something greater than ourselves. The young felt they finally had their President, the old finally felt like a real visionary had come back to lead us. The cynics mocked Obama enthusiasm so much they sarcastically called him "The Chosen One." I don't recall people ever calling Bill Clinton words like that, as likable as he may have been to many.
This was a revival of the greatness of our country, after nearly a decade of darkness or longer dependent on who you'd talk to. His initial victory speech was tear-inducing even to the most rigid of conservatives. Even Fox had to concede, they were impressed.
Many were speaking of a revival of what they felt during the Robert Kennedy election (prior to the shooting), or the John F. Kennedy Presidency (prior to the shooting), or Martin Luther King's riveting calls for change (prior to the shooting). The big kind of thinking that got us to the moon was back in full swing. Maybe now we could finally give the working class the dignity they deserved. Win back our respect in the world with diplomacy and not just weaponry. Appoint UN secretaries that actually liked the UN. Think big, not just for our country but for the world. Return a true sense of selflessness, optimism, hope, and the kind of patience and impatience to make real things happen.
Then, as his Presidency began to unravel, something changed, and it wasn't the country. It was him. Maybe him having to stop smoking got him depressed. Maybe when you become President you get a briefing on "how things actually work" and realize some shadow government controls the whole process. Maybe, the shock of going from complete nobody to leader of the free world in only a few short years was too much of a shock. I'm not sure. So while Obama never seemed a wreck, or incoherent, a certain depression oozed from every pore of his body. Suddenly his once electrifying speeches - became dull, boring talking pieces. Each word carefully selected, calculated and as about inspiring as watching honey drip out of a bottle. Actually I take that back, because honey dripping out of a bottle has a strange almost inspirational spiritual quality to it in comparison to his speeches. Point is Obama hit Boringsville, USA. The man we elected for his passion, energy and electricity became dull, old, and disconnected in just a matter of months. He turned gray faster than what's scientifically possible. He became more professorial than presidential, and this was one class we all wanted out of.
This continued, I believe all the way through his Presidency till now. Even while passing groundbreaking healthcare legislation, killing the world's most wanted terrorist, bringing a dramatic drop down of troop numbers in Iraq, overseeing a successful revival of the car industry, and a fast and effective prevention of a total collapse of our banking system, the guy just didn't excite us.
That is his biggest failure. His complete inability to make the case. I feel like, for as much as he might admire Reagan or Lincoln, he missed out on the key factors of what made these men unique in their own right. The ability to use words, sentiments, and ideas to inspire. The President of the United States is not like being regional manager of Costco. You have to inspire and mobilize people. I believe his failure to do so in hard economic times, and what began as a cool under pressure demeanor quickly devolved into a coldness under tough times. Americans were screaming "where are you?" and we heard nothing back.
He spoke less and less of optimism and more about problems. His pragmatic view of government as a tool to solve problems doesn't exactly reach into your soul and make you feel enthusiastic. It sounds like some kind of really boring textbook explanation of what a government is. Not what we were talking about when we elected him. Not the kind of revolution that those bold red white and blue "HOPE" posters we saw of him implied.
I give Obama credit for being sincere. I think he has worked hard to keep himself in check from becoming arrogant over his new found power. I think he has made a conscious choice not to turn the Presidency into an ego platform for him to think of how awesome he's going to look in future statue form, but as a real entity that effects people in a very real way. But, in his sincerity he missed a huge point. Our country doesn't have a monarchy, or a voice we stand behind. We don't have a Queen like in England (maybe we should just pick Oprah or someone and put her on all the dollar bills, but I degress.) We depend on our President to be both leader as an administrator of policy as well as a beacon of inspiration. Both are equally important. The vision for a better country and the communication skills to rally a nation. Most frustrating has been watching Obama, someone with such gifted oratory skills, finding himself at the mercy of bad speech writers and canned phrases. Unwilling to go lose, off the cuff, free to speak his mind. So afraid of alienating the opposition that he ultimately alienates everyone. People prefer you stand for something and disagree with you, than watch you stand for nothing. John Kerry learned that one the hard way. We want to be inspired, we yearn for leaders, and we yearn to have our minds and ideas about this world changed as much as we pretend we like to know it all and be locked into set ideas that are unshakable. Most of us, even the dumbest boneheads love to learn something new, either about the world, or ourselves. Look at the self-help books, the popularity of movies, TV shows, and games. So much is about expanding our worldview. We have as Americans not just an insatiable hunger for knowledge, but a desire to understand and apply what we've acquired. We want to learn, grow, evolve.
That being said, this President's lack of connection to Americans couldn't have come at a worse time. A disconnect when the nation had just been abused by the harsh belt of the Bush years. The nation yearned for a motherly President, whether or not the macho guys are willing to admit it. But instead we got a disconnected doctor. A Mr. Fix it, when we needed someone not to fix problems for us but give us the power to fix them ourselves. This is in my view the reason we saw this spark of The Tea Party explode into its current form. A group of Americans while greatly misguided want to take control. They want to be empowered, and inspired, and those taking advantage of those folks give them what they want. The problem is the tea party is one of "No." The inspiration isn't about creating, but about destroying. It appeals to the smallest part of our instincts, the anarchist destructive side that wants to tear down big government, big ideas, but lacks the insight to understand why, and worse yet lacks any solutions on what to do once tearing everything down. You got rid of the tea, but what are you going to drink now?
If only our President could only find his mojo, with the big-minded audacity that we truly crave. Maybe somewhere deep in there, behind the now sad tired drooping eyes is the young naive hopeful man we put in that office in the first place. I'm not alone when I say I still believe in "Yes", "Change", and "Hope." I'm just not sure our President still does.