Off the Cuff: February 2013

With President Obama refusing to play the political game, it's no wonder Lincoln was such a hit: Americans are hungry for an actual leader.

Recently I saw the movie Lincoln, and when I left the theater, I felt highly energized but deeply depressed. Let’s start with the good news: What a wonderful movie! The Abraham Lincoln portrayed, caught in the crosshairs of simultaneously trying to win a war and end slavery in America, displayed a moral leadership that was both moving and necessary. Lincoln knew exactly what had to be done and went after it, staying the course even as he prolonged America’s bloodiest war and took a huge political risk. Lincoln, in fact, was a master politician. But he pulled political levers for one reason: for the good of the country.

That leads to what has me depressed. Our current president has taken whatever lessons might have been learned from his first term and come to a point of … whining. Of feeling sorry for himself. Of not using the beginning of his second term, before he becomes a lame duck, to actually accomplish something. At a time when we need great leadership, when our country’s future is in peril, there just isn’t any.

A couple weeks ago, Barack Obama used the last press conference of his first term to bait Republicans. He declared that GOP politicians “have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat.” Then he noted that on Congressional picnics, “Michelle and I are very nice to them, and we have a wonderful time. But it doesn’t prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and, you know, blasting me for being a big-spending socialist.”

No wonder Lincoln was such a hit. We are hungry for an actual leader to step up, rather than this whiny, backbiting nonsense. Republican leaders in Congress, of course, are no better. But we don’t have time for the endless posturing and bad blood while our big problems get kicked down the road, left for another day of finger-pointing that will accomplish nothing.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently cited a Harvard economist on why we have a logjam in this country: “Our absence of growth is delivering political paralysis, and the political paralysis preserves the absence of growth.” Friedman believes that the only way to break out of that cycle is with extraordinary leadership. And that if Obama “really wants to lead, he will have to finally trust the American people with the truth.”

The truth, that is, about the problems our country faces and what can be done about them, instead of simply blaming the other party for everything. The crisis Lincoln faced is instructive. He understood that a 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was crucial, even with the North about to win the war; otherwise, Southern states might go right on with that abominable practice. But Lincoln needed the war to continue as leverage to help garner votes for the amendment, which put him in a terrible bind. It also required hardball politics—both schmoozing, and the offer of patronage jobs. But Lincoln held steady, because he kept the country’s long-term good in his sights.

Our current president isn’t willing to play the game, or he doesn’t get it. He might be the smartest guy in every room he enters, but Barack Obama continues to take a pass on true leadership.

Instead, he puts the responsibility for change squarely back on us. “Now, if the American people feel strongly about these issues and they push hard and they reward or don’t reward members of Congress with their votes,” he said at his press conference, “then I think you’ll see behavior in Congress change. And that’ll be true whether I’m the life of the party or a stick in the mud.”

It’s pretty clear, Mr. President, which one you’ve decided to be.