Obamagram: Expectations and Responsibilities

The following is the full text of the most recent Obamagram from Charles A. Lewis of Coach House Capital. I think it contains some healthy perspective:

As is my wont, let me begin at the beginning.  My wife, Penny Sebring, and I had lunch alone with Obama in July 2003 to get to know him as he was planning a run for the U.S. Senate.  We came away thinking “he’s too good to be true.”  Too smart, too articulate, too reflective and too analytical to be a politician.  

After doing extensive due diligence and after his first year in the Senate, I came to believe his “intellect, temperament, and worldview” made him suitable for the presidency.  It seemed like his emotional intelligence – most particularly his empathy and self-knowledge – were rare among politicians.  Here’s what I wrote in February 2007 just before he announced his candidacy:  “I am committed to getting him nominated and elected (because he) is deliberative and reflective, not ideological.” 

 Looking at President Obama’s performance in office so far, I think I got what I expected – and maybe even more.

 True to form, he has approached the job with an unusually high degree of intelligence, a calm demeanor, and a sophisticated and nuanced worldview.

 Obama knew he would inherit two wars were he to win the presidency.  And, he espoused an ambitious agenda topped by health care, energy-climate change, and education during the campaign.  But, it wasn’t until well into the general election campaign that it became apparent that an existential economic crisis would demand his attention immediately after the election, delaying and competing with his own agenda.

So far, so good....

 Soon after taking office earlier this year, the new President was soundly scolded for trying “to do too much.”  When he was inconveniently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, we were told that he hadn’t yet “accomplished anything.”

 The way I see it, the President has made considerable progress on the economy and health insurance reform, while putting in motion many of his other initiatives.

 Little has been written about how the President’s steady hand and intellectual acuity helped to steer us clear of the economic shoals.

 Amidst the inane accusations of socialism, the President has gotten precious little credit for this major accomplishment.  Such is our abiding faith in our capitalistic system’s resilience.  We just expect – even demand – that it quickly snap back to “normalcy” after every setback and burst bubble.

 But as one who subscribes to the school of behavioral economics (rationality tempered by psychology), I believe that Obama’s command of the subject and reliably calm sense of self-assurance were of immeasurable import during that crisis.  As I’ve written, the markets are a “con game” – they depend enormously on confidence.  That is what this President has helped to provide.  Much like President Reagan did over 25 years ago.

 I have also written about what some have called America’s “culture of impatience.” It was in full view this summer as the President got “flak from all sides” and critics carped about his inability to “close the deal” on health insurance reform.  They criticized him for not taking more leadership – read control – of the process.  The teabaggers had a field day (actually a month of them) in August.

 But, now a bill has actually been passed by the House – a feat never before accomplished in over six decades of trying, through 11 administrations.

 Not only does this accomplishment provide a partial answer to the “What has he done?” question.  It also tells us much about our still new President.  To me, his approach speaks volumes about his “intellect and temperament.”

 He was smart enough to understand the complexities of the health insurance issue and savvy enough to know that he couldn’t control the process from beginning to end.  He was calm and self-assured enough to be patient with the process – even after the Nobel announcement ratcheted up the cacophony from the culture carriers of impatience.

 For me, this exercise so far has also demonstrated that, unlike most of us, this President understands that the surest route between two points is not always a straight line.

 True, too, of his deliberations about Afghanistan.  Amid flak from the trigger happy, American exceptionalists, and his own party’s left wing, he stands his ground and takes his time.  He is as deliberative as I expected.

 Many in the President’s party have been impatient with the pace of Guantanamo’s closing and ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  This pragmatic politician with uncanny calmness will not be rushed, no matter the source of the pressure.

 So, as I look back to compare what I expected with what we’re getting, I am pleased.  Obama has been true to form.  He’s made “no sudden moves,” borrowing a phrase from Dreams from My Father.  He has demonstrated a capacity to master an astonishing array of highly complex subjects beyond what I could have imagined and the patience and pragmatism to make progress on his audacious goals.

 Expectations for the rest of us

 Now that I’ve offered you my opinion about President Obama’s performance, for what it’s worth, let me offer an opinion about what we should expect of ourselves, for what that’s worth.

 Let me begin with a little story.  On Sunday, I was being driven home from the airport by a wonderful man whose services I have enjoyed for many years and who has, unfortunately, endured many health challenges. 

 During the ride, I asked him about health insurance reform in light of the unprecedented House vote the night before.  He favored reform, even though he has had good experience with his own insurance company.  But, he said one thing bothered him – the proposal to establish “death panels.”

 Although I think my characterization of such a claim as a bold-faced lie intended to sew fear was accepted, I am astounded that such an outlandish lie has such an extended life.

 The lesson here is clear.

 The election of Barack Obama was an historic accomplishment.  But, the responsibilities of those of us who supported him, and, dare say, even those who didn’t, didn’t end on Nov. 4, 2008.

 There are expectations of us, too.  As American citizens, and citizens of the world.  This is as much a reminder to me as it is to all of you.

 Professor friends of ours have written two relevant books:  Talking to Strangers (Danielle Allen, who has written Obamagrams, too) and Talking Together (Fay Cook and colleagues).  I would argue that we should expect ourselves to remain engaged in the work of our government.  After all, our Constitution begins with “We the People,” doesn’t it?

 We can’t expect the President to do it all for us.  We can’t simply outsource it to him and stand on the sidelines, carping.  We need to help him build a “new foundation” based on personal and civic responsibility.

 We need to be as alert, informed, and active as we were during the campaign regardless of which candidate we supported. 

 We should not complain about government deficits and debt until our own balance sheets are repaired.  Until we start, once again, to live within our own means.  Until we pay off our credit cards and home equity loans.    Until we deal with our own “addiction to debt.”

 We should work to be accurately informed.  And then, we should keep talking – calmly, rationally, and respectfully – to everyone we encounter about the issue of the day, trying to be constructive toward our President and our legislators, even when we disagree with them.

 We should remind friends and strangers alike that the likes of Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and Beck, on the right, and Olbermann and Maddow, on the left, are not in the news business. Hats off to CNN for getting rid of Lou Dobbs. They’re on in prime time.  They’re in the entertainment business.  Like professional wrestling.  Exaggerations and lies are good for ratings.  We should shoot down lies as soon as we hear them, before they become part of the lexicon.  Just as we should stop racist jokes before they spread further.

 That’s what all of us should seek to do every day.  Talk to neighbors and colleagues.  Insist on the truth.  Clarify as we can, reassure, and urge patience.  We need not be expert on every issue or debate in detail.  Simply tell them that we trust and support our President.

 Remember the baseball analogy I used last year to explain the Democratic primary process?  Well, we’re in a different ballgame now.  Because it’s the President’s chosen sport, let’s say we’re playing basketball.  Olympic basketball.  We’re playing for Team USA now, although we play for different teams during the regular season.  We’re playing for our national team for the four (or eight) rounds of the Olympic tournament.  We’re nearing the end of the first round. 

 We need to keep our heads in the game. Be alert.  Think about our strategy and know the game plan.  Constantly talk to our teammates and back them up even when we disagree with their shot selection or when they make a mistake.  Respect our teammates.  Have confidence in them.  Be constructive in our criticism.    Have a running conversation with the fans in the bleachers.  This is our game to win or lose.  Be patient and let the game come to us.  Above all else, remember that citizenship is a team sport.

 This is not to suggest that we are in a post-partisan world.  Far from it.  Remember during the primary when Obama expressed his admiration for Ronald Reagan – correctly in my view – and was criticized for it?  Independently, I recall writing that I thought Obama was an amalgam of “JFK, RFK and Ronald Reagan.”  I thought that Reagan’s optimism, assuring manner, and verbal skills were just what the country needed.  As we celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I am grateful to him.  And, in this time of economic stress, I remember admiring his courage to not interfere with Paul Volcker’s successful war on inflation, driving the unemployment rate in 1982 up to nearly 11% in the process.

 Neither party has a monopoly on good leadership.  But, as the saying goes, we only have one president at a time.  So, we should look for ways to support this president, not obstruct him.

 Note:  All of my Obamagrams are available at http://sites.google.com/site/obamagramsbylewis/ or you can find me on Facebook as “Chuck Lewis” with a link to that site.

 Please pass it on.


 Charles A. Lewis

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