Obama’s Popeye moment

Last Monday, I turned on the radio to listen to President Obama’s second inaugural address.  To say I was impressed would be a substantial understatement.

I was positively gobsmacked.

In the past few decades, I’ve spent less and less time listening to political speeches.  The men and women who pass for our “leaders” have been  a disappointing lot – poorly acquainted with history, mistaking the transient for the truly significant, devoid of vision, and – most relevant here – incapable of inspiring us to roll up our sleeves and join in building a better America.

Neither political party seems to have a clue about where we can go – and must go – as a nation.  Each clings to worn-out issues and special-interest agendas irrelevant to the common weal, the world we live in, or the exigencies of an onrushing future.

From too-familiar voices – at the Federal, state and local levels – there is little inspiration to be found.   

When Mr. Obama first ran for president, in 2008, he struck me as a classic Democratic candidate – youthful, attractive, and inexperienced in the ways of Washington.  In this description, readers of my generation will quickly recognize Jack Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton – bright and capable men, but all in need of on-the-job training when they took the oath of office.

Mr. Obama seemed to be cut from the same cloth, and so he proved.  His first term was a disappointment for many reasons.  His most important failings, in my view, arose from two essential shortcomings:  He lacked a clear vision for America’s future, and he spoke far too seldom in defense of his own policies.  

As a result of these failings, Mr. Obama ceded the public forum to his Republican opponents and their ultra-conservative allies in the media.  These voices were loud enough, and filled with certainty, though their own lack of vision made the president seem like a prophet, if only by comparison.  

During the first Obama term, public discourse reached a new low – and there seemed little reason to hope it would get better.

But somewhere along the line, Mr. Obama started to get it.

Who knows what the decisive moment was?  Perhaps the decision to kill Osama bin Laden played a role.  The President made a gutsy call, but at bottom, it involved recognizing a simple fact:  Sometimes, being a nice guy isn’t enough.  Sometimes, you just have to fight.

It was like that moment in a Popeye cartoon when our hero gets tired of being pummelled by Bluto, squeezes open a can of spinach, and downs the tasty green glob in one swallow.

Anyway, at some point, the skinny guy with the funny name got the message.  Our President, whose fans once celebrated his ability to hit a three-point shot from downtown, finally figured out that sometimes you have to take it into the paint.  

Sometimes, as Leo McGarry would say, you have to throw an elbow.

Last fall, in the first presidential debate, Mr. Obama showed up in his pre-spinach mode and got whupped.  In the second and third debates, Americans got what they always look for in a leader – a fighter.  And that fact explains Mr. Obama’s re-election.  

The question was – and is – will it last?

In December, the new, improved President Obama showed up again after the massacre at Sandy Hook.  Instead of sympathizing with the families and community and then scuttling home to read position papers, the President announced his readiness to tackle one of America’s most powerful special interests – the weapons lobby.

Last Monday, the new guy showed up again – laying out a bold, progressive agenda which could, if enacted, put him in the history books for more than symbolic reasons.  

Consider what the President has set out to tackle.  Entitlement reform.  Immigration reform.  Restrictions on assault weapons, large ammo clips, and the gun show loophole.  Marriage equality.

And making America a leader in fighting global climate change by moving urgently toward sustainable energy sources.

None of this will come without a battle.  But at last, American liberals and progressives would appear to have an unapologetic leader.

Of course, the question remains:  Does Mr. Obama have the gumption to keep it up?

He’s already converted his campaign organization – Obama for America – into a permanent mechanism for rallying public support, Organizing for Action.  And if there’s one thing Mr. Obama knows, it’s community organization.

But the President will have to lead.  He alone has the presidential “bully pulpit.”  He is a capable orator and an experienced educator.  And after four years, he has learned the difficult job of presiding over the world’s greatest republic.

Like many who support his policies, I remain skeptical of the President’s determination and staying power.

But if the man who delivered Monday’s Inaugural Address sticks around for the next four years, it will be, as Leo would say, “a sight to see.”


West Wing Wisdom

Love the references to Leo McGarry, the best character in one of the best TV shows ever. Alas: those good ol' days in the West Wing appear to be a distant memory. Not sure if a modern-day real-life equivalent even exists...

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