A common, though perhaps not universal, experience of American
President’s is that they end up spending much if not all of their time on the
unexpected. Roosevelt signed up to
right the economy and found himself engulfed by World War, an involvement that
probably contributed to his relatively early death. Though he looked much older, he was only 63. Eisenhower was the same age at the
start of his term; Reagan was 70.
Jimmy Carter, who was elected to be the anti-Nixon, ended up imprisoned
along with our Embassy staff in Teheran.
And George W. Bush who saw himself as the M.B.A. President who would
preside in a time of prosperity and surplus, found himself totally engulfed by
a war that was nowhere on his radar screen. And forget the prosperity and surpluses.
So at this moment Barack Obama, the President of change with a mission
to improve our standing in the world and extend healthcare to everyone, finds
himself standing figuratively if not literally knee deep in oil on a once beautiful
Gulf beach. Because of its
geographic proximity, the BP spill is compared by some to Katrina — Obama’s
Katrina. But that’s not the
case. In fact what’s going on down
there is far worse than Katrina and for the President perhaps potentially much
more toxic in part because it is occurring in his first term. But the underlying difference is that
Katrina, which took many more lives and thus was in itself far more lethal, was
a one-day event. Hurricanes are
horrific, but they have a definable and immediately perceptible end. This is not to discount the enormity of
rebuilding what has been destroyed — ask the citizens of New Orleans — but
after it’s over those charged with the task are more or less in control.
The BP disaster has no definable end and neither those who caused the
spill nor the government are yet in control. It’s easy to point fingers here, but it would appear that
what’s happening presents challenges way beyond anyone’s pay grade, something
that would be the case regardless of who sits in the White House. That brings me to Obama’s dilemma. FDR weathered both the Depression and
the War — the majority of Americans felt they had lost a close family member on
April 12, 1945 — because he was an instinctively visceral personality. Bill Clinton may have “felt our pain”,
but FDR sat vigil by our bedside throughout the entire ordeal. In that he was without peer.
Obama’s problem, and it pains me to say it, is that on the surface his personality is
more akin to Carter than to FDR.
While he certainly has the rhetorical skills — perhaps as great or
greater than anyone who has held the office — he approaches problems with his
head more than his heart, or at least he is seen that way. Like Carter, Obama has a razor sharp
analytic mind, a thinker in a country that is more characterized by its
often-irrational mood swings than by its objective reasoning. Children that we are, Americans don’t
necessarily want to be bothered with complexity or, dare I say it, the
facts. We want to be comforted and
assured that daddy has it all in hand.
FDR had that ability and so did Ronald Reagan (though he never faced
anywhere near the problems that are on this President’s desk), Carter and to this point
Obama do not.
Having said all this, I’m not totally convinced that a Carter is
leading us. I hope it’s a Jack
Kennedy. Of course, what JFK would
have been is only conjecture — he did get us more deeply into Viet Nam — but
even at the time of his early death he had shown himself capable of personal
change, of learning from his mistakes.
After the Bay of Pigs fiasco and his disastrous meeting with Khrushchev
in Europe, Kennedy was written off, his presidency consigned to its inevitable
ignoble end. He was deemed to be
way over his head. A few years
later of course came the Cuban Missile Crisis, which showed a very different
Kennedy, very much in control. Those were harrowing days and he connected with us. He didn’t have much time to show
us his stuff, but that ability to course correct is worth considering before
writing Obama off. I still think
he’s up to it. Let’s hope so because the alternatives are too frightening to even