President Obama’s presidency is in peril for two primary reasons. The first, his inability to be a transformational leader to an American public hungry for it is of his own making. The second, the thinly veiled demonstration of racism unskillfully disguised as “concern for country” is both to be expected and not of his own making.
First, President Obama came into to office promising “change that we can believe in.” However, on the signature issue of change, health care reform, he has not led; choosing instead to send a litany of mixed messages as to whether he would turn the Byzantine labyrinth that is the American health care system on its head. A transformational leader takes bold, decisive, innovative action if he or she believes that it is right for the country. Thus far, on health care, the President has not demonstrated transformational leadership; he has pledged fidelity to the status quo.
Time after time, the President and his team have delivered anemic polemics that were amateurish at best and incompetent at worst. These included a dreadful and inept message on the “public option” which seems to suggest that we can expect neither reasoned deliberation nor resolve from this President. Fearing that he was losing the rhetorical war, the President did what he has come to be known for; he delivered a speech.
The problem of course is that a good speechmaker does not a transformational leader make. While he scored some rhetorical points, he also raised grave questions about whether he is a transformational leader. Among them, did he fail to anticipate the pitfalls of changing the American health care system? Is he aware that transformational leadership requires the ability to orate and deliver? How does he define change? Is he counting on a critical mass of the non-critical thinkers among us to follow him because he is not George W. Bush?
Leadership, in a digital and global world, requires first having a message and then taking control of the message before the message gets lost in the real or manufactured political scandals of the day. What we have seen from this White House so far is that a) they don’t understand this b) they are incapable of rapid and deliberate responses and c) they intend to run from crisis throughout the Obama Presidency. This, of course, is counter to transformational leadership.
For example, former green jobs czar Van Jones was embroiled in controversy over comments he made prior to joining the White House. Was the White House aware of these statements? If so, did they think that in the information age the statements would not come to light? Once they came to light, why did it take them so long to act? Or does this White House think that if they ignore their opponents they will go away? The Van Jones controversy had been brewing for a long time (albeit not in the mainstream press; much like the ACORN controversy is now brewing) and the White House failed to address it at their peril while basking in reckless abandon.
The President did with Jones what he did with Rev. Wright; he took action long after the damage had been done. Are we to believe that this is transformational leadership?
On the controversy surrounding Henry Louis ‘Skip’ Gates, the President also demonstrated enervated leadership first calling out Crowley, the officer involved in the Gates arrest (although the President admitted that he did not know all the facts), then backing down and then inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House for an awkwardly staged and superfluous photo opportunity.
President Obama was elected by an American public famished for leadership, not pandering. We want to know that he will take the tough decisions utilizing solid and reasoned justifications. What we have gotten so far is leadership by speechifying, thus raising the question ‘does the emperor have clothes?’
America remains deeply divided among racial lines. Despite protestations to the contrary, there are Whites in this country that simply cannot and will not accept the legitimacy of a Black Presidency. Many of the Whites of whom I write, are the ones who still challenge the fact that the President was born in the United States. Their racial logic is riotous and birthed from White supremacy. In fact, at the so called 9-12 rally, a protestor held a sign which read, “the zoo has an African lion and the White House has a lying African.”
During this relatively young Presidency, we have heard the constant refrain “we want our country back.” If this sounds eerily familiar, it is because this was the same refrain we heard during the civil rights movement when there was a move afoot to ensure equal rights for Blacks. Of course, the Whites of whom I write deny any racial bias. I suppose that if one were to assume that racial bias means that one does not publicly use racial pejoratives when referring to the President, then one would be correct. However, during Jim Crow, it was not necessary to bar Blacks from voting because they were Black; the preferred methods included: poll taxes, voting tests and intimidation. Did this mean that racism had gone away; of course not. It meant then what it means today: racism continues to be the pig that we put lipstick on while calling it a beauty queen. It was a pig then and it is a pig now.
Moreover, so many Whites have conveniently and purposely bought into the dim-witted notion that the election of Barack Obama means the end of racism; that they have morphed into “post-racial,” “post-racists” and “post-prejudice” Americans. Race in America is built on a complex belief system that contains an array of beliefs that continue to define our existence in 2009 whether we choose to accept this or not.
Do critical thinkers really believe that on Election Day 2008 Americans magically eliminated all of their racial attitudes and beliefs? Do critical thinkers really believe that the lack of civility surrounding political discourse in this country, from which south Carolina congressman Joe Wilson is rewarded with campaign largess for calling the President of the United States a liar during a joint address to Congress, is devoid of racial animus?
The election of a Black President has upset the political and racial calculus in a country that could not have foreseen such an election. Thus many Whites, including the ones of which I write, are choosing to play it both ways. On the one hand, they are appealing to a base of unabashedly racist ideologues that wallow in a shallow pit of racial filth. On the other hand, they want to stay true to what they view as “hardy American values” from an era gone by. (Read the time before the Black President). Thus, they employ the “we want our country back” rhetoric and deeply deny any racial virulence. Not all Whites who criticize the President do so out of racial animus. The problem is that too many do and in so doing, sink deeper into racial acrimony that continues to destroy American democracy.
While we have been on the “post-racial” path for some time, the election of President Obama has lit the movement on fire. The reality is that we are infected with “post-racial” palaver. This is not a complaint but a critique. This critique allows us to question the quixotic theorem advanced by the Whites of whom I write that their “country first” rhetoric is not contaminated with racist dogma.
Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is the author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a ‘post-racial’ America and an associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.