Small World: Obama and his discontents

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Prect

BN Columnist

Every American president since World War II has, if I am not mistaken, ended his tenure of one or two terms at a lower level of approval than he had earlier reached. It is certainly true so far for President Obama.

Why the recurring slumps? And why specifically the downturn in Obama’s fortunes?

I suspect that the heavy burden of difficult decisions that a president must deal with in four or eight years accounts for much of his later grief. In this country, every conceivable option has a highly vocal group behind it — ready to shout and condemn a leader who decides against it and often grouching when the choice goes most, but not all, of their way. You can’t please (anywhere near) most of the people most of the time. In a parliamentary form of government, the party takes some of the heat off their prime minister. In our system, fellow party members run for shelter when a hard presidential choice has to be made.

Add to this popularity trap, the readiness to ravage of the always-hungry press. Troubles in the White House sell papers; smooth sailing means readers would rather watch a sitcom. Thus, there is a tendency — an incentive — to inflate the most innocent of acts — a round or two of golf — into national neglect or impairment. Fox TV News, for example.

Which brings us to the present moment. Why is Obama having such a hard time with his public? A fairly large element of it is the fact that he is an attractive, intelligent, commonsensical Black man. Let’s face it; some among us — certainly not many in Maine — are open or crypto racists.  They simply can’t reconcile themselves to leadership by one whom they consider naturally inferior.

Obama is surely aware of that attitude and goes out of his way to avoid appearing as what they fear and dislike. The racial turmoil in Ferguson produces a calm and reasoned defense. Obama can’t afford to act out the angry Black man like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. Even when he is upset, Obama is self-controlled. No drama. Look for the answer, the solution, not the emotional release.

Such a person is essentially private, reserved. He keeps to himself. Finds himself most comfortable when surrounded by familiar, reliable, not self-serving friends and advisors. He doesn’t reach out arm around the shoulder or pal it up with biggies in his own party, much less the treacherous and hostile opposition.

We don’t usually find men or women of that almost diffident nature in today’s politics. We’d have to go back to Coolidge (silent Cal) or Harding (whose toleration of corruption gave him much to hide) to find presidents who kept to themselves so strictly. Since World War II, I would class Eisenhower in that brigade — another golfer with a restricted and disciplined circle of buddies.

Obama’s thoughtful, let’s call it intellectual, approach transfers easily to foreign affairs. He’s slow to act, often resistant to pressures from within the bureaucracy and from the pundits on and about Capitol Hill. A lot of the criticism comes from special interests, that don’t get their way: disappointed arms salesmen, for example, when the president argues for a reduced military role in operations abroad.

Take Syria. Hawks – Democrat and Republican — urged him to get involved in bringing down Assad by arming the “moderate, secular” opposition. Could anyone identify those folks, much less describe what they have accomplished? Rather late in the game we find that the foe truly threatening to Assad is the Islamic bunch — those who have recently invaded Iraq, using weapons some of which were harvested from those supplied to the moderate opposition in Syria and others purchased by our “allies” in the oil-rich Gulf. Rather than jump in, Obama hesitated and made small gestures to appease critics. (I think he was on the wrong side in opposing Assad, but that’s another story.)

Take Egypt, where critics fault him for abandoning Mubarak. Or Libya, where his opponents say he created chaos. Or Ukraine, where he didn’t stand up to Putin’s bullying.

Much of these attacks benefit from 20/20 hindsight. Few critics at the time had any idea what might lie ahead. Obama didn’t either, but at least he had the wisdom, modesty and courage to stand down or control our reaction. In hawkish eyes, his fault is he’s not a George Bush.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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