Sunday, September 25, 2011

Obama shows intensity at the CBC dinner. But can he sustain it?

Last night the President spoke at the annual awards dinner of the Congressional Black Caucus in DC. And the speech was both witty and fiery at many points. Obama is good at this kind of thing, the speech ended with a intense oratory in which he urged the audience and members of the Congressional Black Caucus to continue in the tradition of the Civil Rights Movements and "press on" through trials and tribulation.

But one can only hope that the President can sustain the fire he has lit. The speech was delivered with the vim and vigor that was reminiscent of 2008 candidate Senator Obama. That was the Obama who captured the party's imagination and hopes and won the presidency by seeming to embody the essence of change and hope. We just knew Senator Obama was a fighter who would stand up against the bullshit of the old guard Washington ways.

President Obama on the other hand, while accomplishing a hell of a lot over three years, hasn't been as confrontational as his rhetoric would suggest. Obama's leadership style has left his supporters and base very frustrated. The CBC and a growing number of Black supporters have been getting more and more angry at the lack of discernible progress for the Black community especially in employment. Members of the CBC and the Black elite have spoken out about the President's lack of attention in helping to alleviate the condition. But the grumblings haven't just been coming from Blacks but across the spectrum of Obama's base. What they want is for the President to do just what he espoused in his speech last night. Or more specifically to show the fire and emotion he had at the end of that speech.

The "no drama Obama" cool the President has exhibited throughout his political career can cut both ways for him. On the one hand in most crisis issues it makes him look very in command and control. In handling natural disaster recoveries and during the capture and killing Osama bin Laden, Obama looked very much in control. But during issues like direct negotiations with congress  particularly with the GOP controlled House of Representatives, Obama's cool detached demeanor comes off more like fear and capitulation. Particularly when he's giving concessions early in negotiations. It's at this point where his supporters want to see their president show the same emotion and engagement like he did in that speech.

The optics of the presidency is almost as important as what he actually does. People want to see involvement and animation from their leaders. There's a reason why they call it the bully pulpit. The flashes of emotion and charge that Obama has shown in the last three weeks is something that he should have sustained over the course of his presidency. His approval ratings would probably be a bit better today if he had even with unemployment as high as it is. As it stands a lot of Obama's 2008 donors are slow to contribute to his reelection today due in large part to the lack of engagement and confrontation in his negotiations. Obama's governing style is to delegate authority and let the people charged with the hands on dealing with an issue do their job. Thats how he handled health care reform (allowing the various committees to draft their version), Financial reform, the Gulf oil crisis and various other issues. That in a grand sense is what a president should do in normal world.

Unfortunately, thats not the world we live in. Obama keeps making the mistake of treating and trusting congress to act in the best interest of the country instead of their party and lobbyists. A problem needs to be solved, the various committees and groups work out solutions, the best solution or compromise is chosen and things get better by an appreciable factor. Again, that's not the world we live in. The GOP have a mandate to refuse to work with the President, conservative democrats have their own agenda and everyone else just want the President to make it happen regardless of what it is. Obama's lack of hands on leadership has made him appear weak even as he's made strides forward. At this point, Obama is going to have to be more proactive. The jobs bill is a good start but unfortunately the timing of it makes the move appear very calculated rather than genuine.

The jobs bill Obama proposed is something he should have done right after signing the health care reform bill back in 2009. He would have been in a much better position to expose the obstinate behavior of the Republicans by their refusal to work with the President to get Americans back to work. A strategy that would have been extremely effective going into the mid-term elections.  If the President ends up with only one term, the problems in his administration will be traced back to missed opportunities to stand up to the opposition in Congress. Telling the CBC to stop complaining and be prepared to get to work is fine and dandy. It's great to see that raw emotion and intensity. Hopefully the President will sustain that attitude for the rest of his first term and through the second.

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