I wish I was not writing this letter to you. Or, at least, I wish I was writing a different letter. But I am writing to tell you that I am disappointed in you.
Of course it is a cliché to be disappointed in a president, particularly a democratic one. Haven’t we all been there before? Remember Clinton? Remember Carter? But looking back now, the Clinton presidency doesn’t look so bad. Even Carter looks good; at least he stood for his principles and went down in glory.
But you? It is even hard to remember now what you once stood for, apart from “Change.”
Perhaps this is your problem. You see, people forgot what you promised in your fiery speeches. But they could not forget that one word, “Change.” So now, they, like me, are asking, “Where is the change?” Just like people were once asking, “Where is the beef?”
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the tremendous constraints you are facing. I understand that as a black man, whom most Americans do not intrinsically trust, you have to be careful not to do something drastic, just as an African man walking down a street has to refrain from making any sudden movements.
But you forgot that people elected a black man precisely because white men had failed them. You forgot that people chose you because you promised them a sudden movement, in a different direction.
Instead, you are trying to be cool like Clinton, straddling the mentality of a Western cowboy and a Southern slave. But the trouble is, times have changed. Clinton could get away with it because the riches that had been plundered from our land by the corporations and the banks had not yet become manifest; we were riding high in the Clinton years, on one bubble or another, of the housing market, the tech stocks, the Soviet collapse.
Times are different now. People expect you to deliver. People will not cut you any slack for maintaining the status-quo, for not changing anything drastically.
Of course your most ardent supporters are still making excuses for you. It is the fault of Congress, they say. It is the fault of George Bush, they say, who brought down the economy, with two wars and slack regulation. It is the special interests they say.
They are right of course.
The nation does not expect you to change all that in an instant. What they expect and desperately need, however, is leadership.
And you have failed to provide that. You have failed to say what it is you even want. You have failed to set an agenda, a map of guiding principles for your presidency. And when I say agenda, I do not mean healthcare reform or immigration. These are just buzz words. What I mean is a declaration of a belief in some underlying principles that will govern these reforms. That is what a president’s role is; that is the difference between a congressional hack and a leader. Then your democratic colleagues in Congress won’t dither.
Then, when the Congress blows it, people could at least see how our system of government is broken.
You are a smart guy. Perhaps you are too smart for your own good, for you have the ability to use language to justify anything.
But that is not what people need from a leader. What they need is to know what a chief executive believes in.
When you were first inaugurated, you claimed to model yourself on Abraham Lincoln. But is it enough to create a team of rivals?
You think the country is in a bad shape now? On this bicentennial anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday, think of the enormous challenges that Lincoln faced. For a principle, the man tore the country apart, went to war against his brethren. Surely, declaring a belief in universal healthcare or salary limits for executives is a piece of cake compared to crafting the emancipation proclamation?
I have to grant you something; you have declared a belief in one thing; unity. But unity without a guiding principle is not only futile, it is actually dangerous. After all, Abe Lincoln did not try to unite with the confederacy, because he knew it would defeat the very principle he was fighting for. Lincoln did not excuse slavery by saying “The Southern plantation owners are simply trying to maximize profits,” the way you excused bankers’ bonuses using similar logic.
I get the feeling that you are gaming the 2012 presidential elections already. But you know what? If you think you are somehow going to make Republicans vote for you, you are very much mistaken. In fact, the way you are going, you are almost guaranteed not to have a second term. Since you have declared that you do not care about a second term, why not stick to your principles? Why not lay out a single payer healthcare plan, however slim its chances of passing? Why not lay out a system for regulating banks and executive compensation, even if the Congress cannot pass it? At least then people will know you are trying. At least then people will see that our government has not been stolen by special interests.
At least then we will have hope.
It is not too late to change your strategy now, but it will be in a month or two. It is not too late to become, not a policy jock, a leader. It is not too late to stand up to the highway robbers on Wall Street the way FDR did in 1929.
Perhaps you are incapable of it. You have sentiment but not passion. You have eloquence but not hubris.
You have suavity but not courage.
I do desperately hope I am wrong. But if it is true, if you lack these fundamental qualities that are essential in a leader, then we are all doomed. Then the prophecies of 2012 may actually come true. Then Sarah Palin may well become our next president.
We should all start to pray now, even atheists like me.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com