It saddens me to say it, but Barack Obama once again showed himself out of touch this afternoon. With the markets plunging and the public scared, the president had a chance to reach out to the American people, to calm them, to tell them everything would be all right.
Instead, he stood aloof and unemotional, speaking of the need for politicians to grow up and do what’s right for America. He was the professor lecturing his class of recalcitrant students (reporters in this case). He was not the free world’s leader, calming the frayed nerves of a nation wondering how the economy once again got so bad so fast.
He could have looked at the camera and reassured the American public, provided a narrative foundation on which to build hope. Instead he looked everywhere but straight ahead into the camera and the eyes of those at the other side of the screen.
I think Barack Obama is a good and decent man, a man who inherited a horrendous hand and a Capitol filled with petty people interested in little beyond their re-election. But to say that, nearly three years into his term, is not good enough.
He could have rejected the business-as-usual approach and, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, forged a partnership with the American people. Instead he has parsed and compromised and backtracked, ceding the high ground and negotiating from a place of weakness.
Increasingly, I find him wanting as a leader. He’s become trapped in the Washington cocoon, forgetting to listen or talk to those who worked so hard to get him elected. He struggles to connect in human and personal terms, a skill great leaders never forget.
In his superb essay in The New York Times, Emory University Professor Drew Westen said it eloquently and accurately:
The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred.
But Barack Obama does not tell stories. He shares lecture notes, and not terribly inspiring ones at that. He hectors both sides to be reasonable and find the middle. But he doesn’t really define what that middle is. This intelligent man, who at rare moments can bring audiences to tears with his eloquence, more often leaves his audience numbed by his parsing.
Right now he needs to say, “trust me, we can get through this …. come with me, I will lead the way … and here’s how.” Instead, he’s telling Congress to grow up and do something. And the public is shivering outside.
Less than an hour after the president’s remarks today, the Dow had dropped another 150 to 300 points — down more than 500 for the day.
Who knows what comes next. But without clear leadership, it won’t be pretty.