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Memo to Obama: Where is the Vision?

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Last Saturday, in between plays of the USC-Notre Dame game, puffs of cigars, bites of pizza, and gulps of wine, I found myself debating President Obama’s leadership skills with a political friend of mine. Although he doesn’t work in politics, he worked on the Obama campaign and, like most everyone in Washington, D.C., follows politics so religiously that he even likes discussing the stuff on fourth down. Still, he’s a good guy.

At issue was the perception that Obama is a weak president. He disagreed, I didn’t.

My friend believes that Obama’s failure to play hardball politics with more enthusiasm and cunning is the reason his domestic agenda is rotting under the cherry blossoms.

“Obama doesn’t like the political game,” he said. “He just wants to get stuff done. He’s not like Bill Clinton.”

For those of you not familiar with the ways of Washington, wanting to get stuff done is the kiss of death.

That’s because Washington does not operate by the same logic with which you address a leaky roof–identify the problem, examine possible solutions and settle on the most cost-effective remedy. Here, problems and solutions are viewed through the lens of who wins and who loses. Who gains clout and who loses it. Who will generate more campaign contributions and who will suffer. Who will rise in the polls and who will fall. Logic, fairness, cost-efficiency, necessity and other annoying considerations are rarely allowed to get in the way of a surefire way to cream your opponent.

While I agree that Obama has been loath to play tackle football, I don’t think that’s the reason his leadership style has been criticized. Nor do I believe that the intransigent House Republicans are (solely) to blame. This is largely a problem of Obama’s making. 

Yes, he ordered the raid on Osama bin Laden and other nefarious characters. Yes, he pushed through health care legislation. Yes, he ramped up the war in Afghanistan and led on Libya (eventually). But succeeding sometimes does not mean that he has demonstrated the internal fortitude to lead the country out of the abyss into which it seems we have fallen.

It started on the campaign trail with promises to change the tone in Washington. Necessary to be sure, but anyone with even a cursory knowledge of this city knows that a) most members of Congress do not share this view and b) in order for one man to accomplish that feat he must become a formidable political presence. One that dominates political discourse, commands respect and instills fear in those who oppose him.

Instead, all too often, Obama has reacted rather than led. And when he does lead it is often meekly. A majority of Americans believe this country is seriously on the wrong track. Yet we are sorely lacking any bold, imaginative plans to get us on the right road. For example, with 11 million homes under water in the U.S.–meaning more is owed on the home than it is worth–it is estimated that the president’s latest mortgage modification program will help only an estimated one million homeowners.

To be sure, more could be helped if Congress got to work. But the president must take responsibility for failing to propose real solutions. Sure, helping one million homeowners is better than helping none. But where’s the plan to help millions more? And how come he’s not talking about jobs anymore? Did he forget nearly 10 percent of the country is unemployed?

Where’s the fight? Where’s the outrage that so many Americans feel? Where is the determination that we will surely need to get us out of this mess?

This is what the Occupy Wall Street protests (and their offshoots) have tapped into. An anger that not enough is being done to address not only the deep economic trouble so many are grappling with, but also the growing inequality that is tearing at the fabric of our society. A despair that no matter how hard one wants to work, there isn’t a job that’s going to pay enough to afford health care, a house and your kids’ college tuition. 

Instead, the president talks of “something is better than nothing.” Well, okay. That’s true. But since when is that how America thinks?

It doesn’t have to be this way. The president can and should use his bully pulpit, starting by addressing the nation from the Oval Office. More than tell us that he feels our pain, he must offer a vision for restoring America. Not band aids and half measures. An actual innovative, bold, visionary plan and dare Congress to give us the finger (again).

He must also remind us of our responsibility to our community–to participate in our discourse and our elections. To communicate to our elected representatives what we, the employers, want them to do and to implore us to take a page out of the Notre Dame playbook and fire the coaches when they fail to deliver.


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