Barack Obama is long off the campaign trail – but don’t tell him or his administration that. For, the president knows that the campaign trail is where he does his very best work, and he simply refuses to leave the land of vacant platitudes, cheap symbolism, media back-scratching, cool-guy swagger, and oratorical flourish behind.
And why would he? Promising to do a good job is easier than doing the job itself. And so in the grand tradition of professional trail-stomping, President Obama is thus far the consummate campaigner-in-chief: Have teleprompter, will travel.
It’s not entirely his fault. While campaigning for the presidency, his cornucopious gifts were much-ballyhooed by his loyal and adoring fans, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann among them, who seemed perfectly content to merely anticipate his readiness – chests heaving in excitement – instead of politely asking him to prove it. They didn’t necessarily care what the nuts and bolts of his plans were, as long as he made them sound good – and, of course, historic.
Since he was a young community organizer, in fact, Barack Obama was told he had a way with words, that he could rally people to a cause, and that he represented a new generation of movers and shakers.
So it’s no real surprise that President Obama thinks having a way with words, rallying people to a cause and representing a new generation of movers and shakers is all he must do to win popular favor and get things done in Washington. Obama’s legion of courtly underlings has helped convince him he is right. As Sam Schulman brilliantly asserted in The Weekly Standard, while comparing the president to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Obama is precisely like Hamlet in his conviction that his eloquence proves his leadership ability and his self-knowledge. And, like Hamlet, his preparation for high office consisted of playacting, speechmaking, and self-examination.”
And playacting has been one of the cornerstones of the Obama administration’s first few months. “Symbolism Now, Ask Questions Later” seems to be the mantra, as is evidenced by his many “pronouncements,” a key giveaway that empty symbolism is hard at work. For example, Obama pronounced that he would close Guantanamo Bay. When he discovered doing so would actually require a plan of action to follow, the plan was awkwardly tabled.
Then he pronounced that he would close Yucca Mountain, the proposed nuclear waste facility that would empty out the hundreds of temporary facilities around the country and finally create a safe, permanent home, far above the water table, for our radioactive waste. What will be done when we no longer have safe storage room for nuclear waste is thinking too far ahead, apparently. Preferring to tie up funding in bureaucratic red tape for the next four years, the president will leave that quagmire for someone else to untangle.
Repealing President Bush’s stem cell limits was also largely symbolic. Embryonic stem cells were proven inferior to adult stem cells, thanks to some inquisitive Japanese scientists and research funding from the Bush Administration. Though embryonic stem cells are considered by most scientists to be irrelevant now, there was President Obama, in a perfect photo-op, flanked by jubilant members of the “scientific community” rejoicing in his symbolic proclamation to restore science to its rightful place.
The newly formed Council on Women and Girls doesn’t have much substance to it either. Even its direct benefactors are disappointed. Martha Burk, a former chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations said, “I think it falls far short of what’s needed..” And women’s issues blogger Linda Lowen wondered if the council was merely an “empty (pant) suit.”
These are the kinds of stunts we expect on the campaign trail – but not in the White House.
Another campaign trail import? Townhall meetings. Both Vice President Biden and President Obama embarked on trips to Minnesota and California, respectively, for townhalls to convince the American public that they know what they’re doing. The President stopped by Dodger Stadium during the same trip. And he ended the day with an appearance on Jay Leno. It’s a page right out of the “Yes We Can” campaign calendar.
“O” logos have been replaced by “Recovery.gov” logos. The cool guy from the campaign, who shared a stage with Bruce Springsteen, traded fist-bumps with his wife, danced on Ellen DeGeneres, and even offered his comments on Jessica Simpson, still thinks “cool” will sell his empty messages. Worse than the silliness of the President of the United States occupying his time with a college basketball bracket, is the audacity of the White House Web site to actually publish it…on its front page. Even Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “As much as I respect what he’s doing, really the economy is something he should focus on more than the brackets.”
Maybe for peacetime presidents with booming economies and microscopic unemployment levels, the job can be a daily repetition of handshakes, photo ops, and debonair waves from Air Force One. Cavorting with late-night comics and making vacant pronouncements that don’t really go anywhere can help occupy the time. But President Obama has none of those luxuries, and so it’s time for someone in his administration to gently remind him that he is no longer campaigning for a job. The time has come to actually do the job. Maybe it won’t be as fun or as glamorous as he initially thought, but there’s plenty of time for that when his first term is over…and he can begin campaigning once more.
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