Obama in the Shark Tank

The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus (535-475 BC) said that "character is destiny." He might have added that "personality is decisive." Where is Barack Obama in this framework?

The venerable historian, James MacGregor Burns, in his book "Transforming Leadership," drew an important distinction between "transforming and transactional leadership," and calling Franklin Delano Roosevelt a reflection of the former genre.

Given all the burgeoning crises in the United States and the world, the only global military and economic superpower (albeit in serious deficit straits) needs a transforming leader, when, at best, it has a transactional leader in the White House.

I say "at best," because President Obama displays an uncanny inability to deal. He is not even anywhere near Lyndon Baines Johnson in that regard. This lack is due more to his personality than to his character.

His is a concessionary demeanor, an aversion to conflict and to taking on entrenched power, a devotee of harmony ideology not because he doesn’t believe in necessary re-directions, but because he does not project the strength of his beliefs and willingness to draw the line-here and no further-as did Ronald Reagan or FDR.

In the shark tank known as the federal Washington, D.C. Obama’s personality projects weakness as someone who does not take a stand and fight, as someone inclined to rely on his rhetoric to explain his withdrawals, retreats and reversals. Some examples follow.

First, the President has been openly for single payer health insurance (full Medicare for all with free choice of physician and hospital) since before he became a politician. His friends included single payer leaders such as the stalwart Dr. Quentin Young in Chicago.

So, instead of starting with "single payer," he descends to vague policy declarations, asks Congress to come up with a specific bill, while cutting private deals in meetings in the White House with drug industry and health insurance executives.

Now months later, with Blue Dog Democrats emboldened, with his progressive wing angry and starting to rebel, a hoked up insurance bill is having many provisions eviscerated. Once the Republicans smelled his lack of resolve, his wavering on one amendment after another, they became ravenous in their demands and obstructions.

Second, Barack Obama, before he came to Washington, was also a supporter of Palestinian rights. Between election and inauguration, he proceeded to categorically back the illegal blockade and invasion of Gaza by Israel and did not object to the slaughter of 1400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, young and old. Apparently, the impoverished, pummeled people of a half-destroyed Gaza, whose many newly elected members of the Palestinian parliament were kidnapped and jailed by the Israelis two years earlier, had no right to feebly defend themselves against constant border raids and missiles by the fifth most powerful army in the world.

Third, Mr. Obama’s tough talk about a reckless and greedy Wall Street is not paralleled with tough regulatory proposals. He allowed, without working his will, the banks and Banking Committee Chairman, Barney Frank to produce a weakened regulatory bill that passed the House of Representatives.

For example, regulatory provisions on the rating agencies (such as Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s) and derivatives were mere taps on the wrists, ridiculed by former Chairs of the Securities and Exchange Commission from both parties.

Fourth, on labor and NAFTA, his campaign speeches were about the need for reform. He has started nothing there and says nothing about this promise to revisit the U.S. participation in NAFTA. He believes in the card check version of labor law reform but has not used his political capital to advance this modest reform at all.

Fifth, on climate change, where so much of the world looks for him to be a transforming leader, Mr. Obama has bought into the cap and trade morass instead of a simpler, more enforceable carbon tax. His words on this subject are often well-spoken but his rhetoric is undermined by his inaction. His opponents in Congress and the corporate sector are strengthened as a consequence.

Mr. Obama leaves Copenhagen without a deal after outlining three steps-mitigation of greenhouse gases, openness of each country’s progress or lack thereof, and a very modest financial commitment from the world’s biggest polluter to help the more beleaguered countries with climate change (poor countries that are recipients of the Western countries emissions.) He hardly set an example for a government whose ownership and control of GM and Chrysler could transform automotive technology.

He cannot transform his hope and change slogan into meaningful policies if he signals that he can be had on one issue after another by being desperate to get any legislation so long as he can give it the right public relations label.

Most importantly, The President cannot be a transforming leader if he turns his back on the liberal and progressive constituency that elected him because he thinks they have nowhere to go.

He must give visibility to their expectations of him, including access to many cabinet secretaries and regulatory agency heads who have been reluctant even to meet with civic leaders, unlike the open doors regularly available to the corporatists and their lobbyists.

"Personality," "character," pretty soon they become indistinguishable and very resistant to both "hope and change."

RALPH NADER is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.


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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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