Progressive Democrats whose energy and enthusiasm were the primary fuel for Barack Obama’s triumphant campaign are growing increasingly restive at his uncertain performance on crucial issues.
Those Obama fans who are disappointed keep looking for explanations. Is he too impressed by the elite he met in Cambridge, too eager to split the difference between left and right, too willing to compromise? As he pursues legislation, why does he keep deferring to others — whether to his party’s Congressional leaders or the Congressional Budget Office or to this month’s acting president, Olympia Snowe? Why doesn’t he ever draw a line in the sand? What’s with all this squishy need for a “bipartisan solution?”
This state of affairs poses a serious risk to Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections and to Obama’s second term prospects as well. In searching for an explanation for what’s gone so wrong so quickly, Calbuzz recalled an interview from early in the 2008 primary season; asked to name his favorite TV show, he said it was “The Wire,” adding that his favorite character was Omar Little.
HBO’s five season, Dickensian look at street life in Baltimore, The Wire was unarguably the greatest television series in history. Obama’s comments about it, while only briefly noticed at the time, spoke volumes about the message he was sending about what kind of president he would be – and his failure to honor that message explains the disappointment so many supporters now feel.
Obama’s politically surprising endorsement of the raw and violent series seemed evidence of his image as an unconventionally cool politician of soaring intelligence, and his embrace of Omar was notable for what it said about his own values. A shotgun-wielding, black, gay stick-up man, Omar was a sociopath to be sure, but a remarkably ethical one, who only robbed predatory drug dealers and remained unfailingly true to his convictions:
“Omar is loved because he is meaner, funnier, cooler and braver than any other character you’ve ever seen on TV. He is unpredictable, complicated and brilliantly strange. Amid all the the show’s vicious drug dealers, corrupt politicians and compromised cops, Omar is the only figure who adheres to a strict, if perverse, moral code.”
For the Balmer cognoscenti, Obama’s recognition of the moral values of this anti-hero raised already high expectations that he would be a fearless, confident and unfailingly principled leader. So far, he has fallen far short of those expectations.
As president, Obama to date has only rarely displayed a morally certain strength of character. On issues from Afghanistan to gays in the military and Wall Street bail-outs, he has vacillated, caved into the status quo and exhibited an over eagerness to compromise and please, a stance that has gotten him routinely rolled and punked. Omar would not approve.
As Congress begins its epic endgame on health care, and Obama faces tough decisions on a host of other matters, we’ve unearthed some memorable Omar quotes to remind him why voters sent him to the White House:
“The game’s out there and it’s play or get played.”
Omar’s definition of how things work on the streets is useful advice for the president: From his first day in office, Obama extended his hand in the name of bipartisanship, only to be bitch-slapped by Republicans for his trouble.
It’s way past time for him to start channeling his inner Harry Truman and expose the just-say-no GOP crowd as the know-nothing obstructionists they are. His mealy-mouthed appeasement of a tyrannical minority, who get up every morning thinking about how to destroy and delegitimize him is not “change we can believe in” but a simple case of political weakness.
“Money ain’t got no owners, only spenders.”
Obama backed away from his promise to take on economic special interests the moment he appointed as Treasury Secretary the repulsive Timothy Geithner, who immediately began shoveling hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to his banking pals, as middle and working class jobs disappeared at warp speed.
The spectacles of Goldman Sachs setting aside more than $15 billion in bonuses for its executives, in part for helping to reboot the bubble-bursting business of derivative sales, and of Wall Street insiders giddy at the Dow’s return to 10,000 offer a stark contrast to the despair of recession and unemployment that has spread through states across the nation and dug its claws deep into California.
“A man got to have a code.”
Nowhere is Obama’s turn-tail retreat more evident than in his dithering handling of health care reform.
He has passively stood aloof from the proceedings, blankly watching the scheming and back-scratching of a Congress more interested in sucking up to special interests than providing universal, affordable coverage, and lamely awaiting the latest pronouncement from President Olympia Snowe.
Rather than clearly making the case for a public option, and signaling his bottom line support for a key campaign promise, Obama has clothed his stance on health care in gauzy rhetoric while making unprincipled concessions to the pharmaceutical industry and violating his vow of a transparent process.
“Omar don’t scare.”
Advocates of equal rights for gay people represented a significant part of Obama’s progressive coalition.
Attracted by his clear and unequivocal promises to end the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy and the repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, they’ve seen that his actions don’t match his words. His timidity in making the case for civil rights enables and empowers Glenn Beck right-wing homophobes and rednecks, who become more emboldened day-by-day.
“How you expect to run with the wolves at night when you spend all day sparring with the puppies?”
While Obama has deservedly won huzzahs abroad for his grand speeches about America’s re-engagement with the world, his foreign policy remains a confusing muddle of half-measures that lacks coherence and consistency.
The extended White House debate about Af-Pak policy seems more attuned to domestic political calibration than a clear-eyed rethinking of America’s security interests (“You been so busy being devious you done messed around and got yourself caught in a web,” Omar memorably told one too-clever-by-half drug dealer ).
His kowtowing to the Chinese government by refusing to meet the Dali Lama displayed a shameful and cowardly turning away from an icon of freedom that would disgust the fearless Omar (“It ain’t what you takin’, it’s who you takin’ from, ya feel me?”). And his failure to stand up to Iran’s barbaric murder and torture of dissidents shows how easily he backs down (unlike Omar, who didn’t give bullies a second chance: “Boy, you got me confused with someone who repeats himself.”)
“When you doin’ it as long as I have, you do it on your name.”
Despite his early setbacks and stumbles, Obama like Omar, still carries a gold-standard reputation as a singular figure, as reflected in his surprise Nobel Peace Prize. But his image as a transformative leader is sure to fall short if he is unwilling to summon the courage to act as boldly as he talks. Oh, indeed.