The Obama Presidency in Peril?



By Christopher Metzler

President Obama’s presidency is in peril for two primary reasons. The first, his inability to be a transformational leader to an American public hungry for it is of his own making. The second, the thinly veiled demonstration of racism unskillfully disguised as “concern for country” is both to be expected and not of his own making.  

First, President Obama came into to office promising “change that we can believe in.” However, on the signature issue of change, health care reform, he has not led; choosing instead to send a litany of mixed messages as to whether  he would turn the Byzantine labyrinth that is the American health care system on its head. A transformational leader takes bold, decisive, innovative action if he or she believes that it is right for the country. Thus far, on health care, the President has not demonstrated transformational leadership; he has pledged fidelity to the status quo.

Time after time, the President and his team have delivered anemic polemics that were amateurish at best and incompetent at worst. These included a dreadful and inept message on the “public option” which seems to suggest that we can expect neither reasoned deliberation nor resolve from this President. Fearing that he was losing the rhetorical war, the President did what he has come to be known for; he delivered a speech. 

The problem of course is that a good speechmaker does not a transformational leader make.  While he scored some rhetorical  points, he also raised grave questions about whether he is a transformational leader. Among them, did he fail to anticipate the pitfalls of changing the American health care system? Is he aware that transformational leadership requires the ability to orate and deliver? How does he define change? Is he counting on a critical mass of the non-critical thinkers among us to follow him because he is not George W. Bush?

Leadership, in a digital and global world, requires first having a message and then taking control of the message before the message gets lost in the real or manufactured political scandals of the day. What we have seen from this White House so far is that a) they don’t understand this b) they are incapable of rapid and deliberate responses and c)  they intend to run from crisis throughout the Obama Presidency. This, of course, is counter to transformational leadership.

For example, former green jobs czar Van Jones was embroiled in controversy over comments he made prior to joining the White House. Was the White House aware of these statements? If so, did they think that in the information age the statements would not come to light? Once they came to light, why did it take them so long to act? Or does this White House think that if they ignore their opponents they will go away? The Van Jones controversy had been brewing for a long time (albeit not in the mainstream press; much like the ACORN controversy is now brewing) and the White House failed to address it at their peril while basking in reckless abandon.

The President did with Jones what he did with Rev. Wright; he took action long after the damage had been done. Are we to believe that this is transformational leadership?

On the controversy surrounding Henry Louis ‘Skip’ Gates, the President also demonstrated enervated leadership first calling out Crowley, the officer involved in the Gates arrest (although the President admitted that he did not know all the facts), then backing down and then inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House for an awkwardly staged and superfluous photo opportunity. 

President Obama was elected by an American public famished for leadership, not pandering. We want to know that he will take the tough decisions utilizing solid and reasoned justifications. What we have gotten so far is leadership by speechifying, thus raising the question ‘does the emperor have clothes?’

America remains deeply divided among racial lines. Despite protestations to the contrary, there are Whites in this country that simply cannot and will not accept the legitimacy of a Black Presidency. Many of the Whites of whom I write, are the ones who still challenge the fact that the President was born in the United States. Their racial logic is riotous and birthed from White supremacy. In fact, at the so called 9-12 rally, a protestor held a sign which read, “the zoo has an African lion and the White House has a lying African.”

During this relatively young Presidency, we have heard the constant refrain “we want our country back.” If this sounds eerily familiar, it is because this was the same refrain we heard during the civil rights movement when there was a move afoot to ensure equal rights for Blacks.  Of course, the Whites of whom I write deny any racial bias. I suppose that if one were to assume that racial bias means that one does not publicly use racial pejoratives when referring to the President, then one would be correct. However, during Jim Crow, it was not necessary to bar Blacks from voting because they were Black; the preferred methods included: poll taxes, voting tests and intimidation. Did this mean that racism had gone away; of course not. It meant then what it means today: racism continues to be the pig that we put lipstick on while calling it a beauty queen. It was a pig then and it is a pig now.

Moreover, so many Whites have conveniently and purposely bought into the dim-witted notion that the election of Barack Obama means the end of racism; that they have morphed into “post-racial,” “post-racists” and “post-prejudice” Americans. Race in America is built on a complex belief system that contains an array of beliefs that continue to define our existence in 2009 whether we choose to accept this or not. 

Do critical thinkers really believe that on Election Day 2008 Americans magically eliminated all of their racial attitudes and beliefs? Do critical thinkers really believe that the lack of civility surrounding political discourse in this country, from which south Carolina congressman Joe Wilson is rewarded with campaign largess for calling the President of the United States a liar during a joint address to Congress, is devoid of racial animus? 

The election of a Black President has upset the political and racial calculus in a country that could not have foreseen such an election.  Thus many Whites, including the ones of which I write, are choosing to play it both ways.  On the one hand, they are appealing to a base of unabashedly racist ideologues that wallow in a shallow pit of racial filth. On the other hand, they want to stay true to what they view as “hardy American values” from an era gone by. (Read the time before the Black President). Thus, they employ the “we want our country back” rhetoric and deeply deny any racial virulence. Not all Whites who criticize the President do so out of racial animus. The problem is that too many do and in so doing, sink deeper into racial acrimony that continues to destroy American democracy.

While we have been on the “post-racial” path for some time, the election of President Obama has lit the movement on fire. The reality is that we are infected with “post-racial” palaver. This is not a complaint but a critique. This critique allows us to question the quixotic theorem advanced by the Whites of whom I write that their “country first” rhetoric is not contaminated with racist dogma.

Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is the author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a ‘post-racial’ America and an associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.

11 responses to “The Obama Presidency in Peril?

  1. While I beleive that the Obama administration has stumbled, I beleive that the president and his cabinet will rebound and move this nation forward.

    He still has the goodwill of MANY Americans of all races.

    • Dr. Loretta Gilmore

      Now we see the effects of electing an inexperienced person with a socialist agenda to the Presidency of the United States of America.

  2. Wow!! Somebody is sure stirring the pot…

  3. Pingback: Dr Chris Metzler: Obama Presidency in Trouble? « Black Public Scholars

  4. Well done analysis…yes Obama is fumbling and I hope he gets it together. But I wish more people make the dissent about the issues. I was on the mall on 9/12, (ironically for the Black Family Reuion) and saw many signs and tshirts that reeked more racial dissent than political. My “favorite” were the tshirts that read “The real Americans are here.” I now wish I had asked everyone who had that shirt on if they considered me a “real” American. Just amazing…and not in a good way…

  5. I appreciate your thorough and quasi-balanced critique, but I am not sure that your scathing critiques offers us any hope, real hope, not of the palliative sort. As a concerned and thinking African American citizen of this country, please apprise me of what I must now do in light of having read your read of the times?

    I’ve not read your book as yet, but I hope to pick it up.

    Be well and fight the good fight!

  6. I do beleive that the Obama administration will have to get more aggressive in combating the ugly, inflammatory racism that the right wing is promoting; however, I do think that he has done a very good job thus far given what he has inherited.

  7. Christopher:

    We live in societies in which it still takes a white leader (Jimmy Carter) or white columnist (NY Times) to raise the spectre of racism before we can discuss it openly? If a colored person makes the suggestion it is discounted and discredited.

    It’s time good people stood up and got into those town halls, talk shows and fought back.

  8. I think that President Obama knows that it is more important to tackle other issues at this point- the economy, health care, Iraq, etc… as opposed to getting bogged down in a futile debate with some crazy, wild eyed, racist nutcases.

  9. Give the man a chance! My God! He can’t straighten out ALL our problems in 6 months. Lordy! And why are you sir, bashing the man. It’s because of strides made by him and others that you even have the opportunities you have today. Support our president and pray for him. He’s taking a lot of hits because these racist folks in America are resistant to a Black man being in the “White” House!

  10. Franklin J. Agardy, Ph.D

    Dr. Metzler,
    Happened to see you on O’Riley this evening and thought that you really have a very positive approach and are a truly excellent speaker – I woulkd hope that you are invited more often to express your views.
    Note: this is does not address your comments about our President, rather it is about your intellect…….You should have your own program……

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