President Barack Obama has a choice to make -- and it is one of Faustian proportions. He needs to decide who he wants to be, and how he wants history -- and his children -- to remember him. More specifically, he needs to decide whether he wants to be a Great Leader or whether to play it safe in the interest of being a two-term president.
Of course, even ‘playing it safe' won't guarantee Obama a second term in the Oval Office. But these days, any politician crazy enough to take on the entrenched corporate and political classes that control Washington is likely facing early retirement. So, it's a pretty safe bet that a president who dared take such a stand would risk being evicted from the White House -- and maybe Washington -- permanently.
Still, that is the kind of bold leadership it will take to begin the process of effecting real change.
In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, then-Senator Obama wrote passionately and at great length about "the ways we can ground our politics in the notion of a common good." It could, of course, be argued (and I have) that Obama has always been more politician than idealist. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that even as he was writing his book, the young author was betraying at least some of its professed values on the floor of the US Senate. Today, in the office of president, an even more calculating side of Obama has emerged. As president, Obama seems to be trying to figure out if that "notion of a common good" has any place at all in a successful political career.
That is not the signature of a Great Leader.
Great leaders are, after all, willing to take great risks -- even fall on their swords -- in the interest of the "greater good." Politicians, on the other hand, must first consider the viability and longevity of their careers. That means factoring in the risks of ‘doing the right thing.' When viewed through the prism of such political ambition, the logic of ‘staying the course' in Afghanistan "because we're there," (as Pat Buchanan recently put it on The McLaughlin Group), begins to make a perverse sort of sense. Such ‘logic' also goes a long way toward explaining why Obama suddenly -- and otherwise inexplicably -- lost the political will to fight for the inclusion of a public option in new health care legislation. Apparently, serving the public good or, in Obama's words, "putting Main Street before Wall Street" just aren't worth the political risk. Not even in the interest of a better world.
That is what presidential candidate Barack Obama was talking about way back in 2008 when he railed on the campaign trail about "change we can believe in," isn't it?
That is what Obama meant back in 2008 when he told his audience at a church in Chicago, that "life doesn't count for much unless you're willing to do your small part to leave our children a better world -- even if it's difficult, even if the work seems great, even if we don't get very far in our lifetime." Right?
If he had really meant what he said, Obama would be willing to risk being a one-term president because he actually believed his own words. He would be willing to make that sacrifice because he meant what he said back on the campaign trail in 2008, when he so passionately pitched "change we can believe in." He would be willing to make it, "even if it's difficult, even if the work seems great."
While still on the campaign trail, Obama promised more than once that he would always tell us the truth. If he was telling the truth then, and if he's sincere about leaving our children a better world, the president should stop trying to save the unsalvageable and wholly corporate-owned status quo, and take a real stand for (what we used to call) the ‘public good.'
He would stop nibbling around the edges of ‘reform,' and tell the political lobbyists, corporate parasites and Congressional sycophants that have brought this nation to its knees that they can no longer make ungodly profits on the backs of the working and middle classes. He would do this publicly and with great fanfare. While he was at it, he would put all the Big Corporate Players on notice that he was going to do what he was elected to do, that is, serve the people -- not corporate interests. Those players would, of course, include the the military industrial complex; the financial/banking industries; the HMOs and Big Pharmaceuticals; the Big Utilities and fossil fuel industries; and let's not forget Big Tobacco and (Way too) Big Agriculture.
Once he found that kind of courage, Obama could finally speak the truth to the Pentagon Generals and their friends in the Defense Department. He would tell them that we can't ever ‘win' in Afghanistan (whatever ‘winning' means). Then he would order them to begin pulling US troops out -- NOW. When he's finished with the Generals, he should tell Wall Street to give their huge bonuses back to American taxpayers -- and to keep it coming until they've paid back every cent of welfare they've stolen.
Yes, I know this is an unlikely scenario. And I understand that chances of Obama risking a second term to take such a politically untenable stand are negligible, and that even if he did, such a move would open the door for a Republican victory in 2012. But Obama could lose in 2012 anyway. With his poll numbers down -- and dropping -- and Independents backing away from him, it wouldn't take much to tip the scales. As it stands, any number of things, from the economy to the war in Afghanistan to (lack of meaningful) health care reform, could effectively take him out of the game. So why not get out of the game, go home, enjoy his beautiful family (and his Nobel Peace Prize), maybe write a few more best-sellers? Why not go down fighting the good fight?
Right now, President Obama has it within his power to change the course of world events by making a relatively small sacrifice. If he has any of the wisdom of his rhetoric, Obama should consider making that sacrifice if only to save his own soul and inspire hope in his own children. Chances are, that in taking such a courageous stand, Obama would inspire not only his children, but young people all over the world. In fact, such a display of personal and political courage would likely inspire the entire international community to move forward in ways they would not otherwise have dared dream. By simply having the courage to do the right thing, President Barack Obama really could change the course of world history.
Now, perhaps more than at any other time, the world needs Great Leadership. Obama should step up and provide that leadership. Without it, there's virtually no chance of keeping hope alive.