Published on
the Winston-Salem Journal (North Carolina)

Which Obama Will We Get?

As President Barack Obama tours the country promoting his plans to put Americans back to work and to cut the deficit, he has the potential to reverse his slide in popularity and perhaps to truly represent "change we can believe in." For his first change, he will be promoting his specific solution to a pressing national problem rather than working behind the scenes with Congress. This is what great presidents do — lead. Secondly, he may for the first time apply his considerable oratorical skills to become "salesman-in-chief" for his plans. And finally, he will with hope escape the insular bubble of the White House, where he has remained for months facing one major foreign or domestic challenge after another.

In 2008, I put in hundreds of hours organizing a team of 20 faculty members at Appalachian State University to urge students, in nonpartisan fashion, to register and to turn out to vote. While the normal percentage of college student voting in presidential elections is about 40 percent or less, 70 percent of ASU students turned out and gave Obama a 3,000-vote margin, turning Watauga County blue.

In his 2008 campaign, Obama made a number of promises. One of his best-known pledges was that during his presidency, he would work to stop the rise of the oceans and begin to heal the planet. Another was to make such decisions based on the best science.

Recent actions by Obama have given many who worked for his election reason to question those pledges. Two weeks ago, he opposed the best science on ozone pollution, deciding instead to favor the urgings of waves of oil and coal industry lobbyists. He refused the recommendation of the EPA, accepting the questionable idea of the lobbyists that jobs would be lost if he approved. He failed to address the scientifically supported assertion of EPA head Lisa Jackson that the tighter ozone restrictions would save the lives of 12,000 Americans annually, many of whom will be children.

Also recently, the president's administration has come out in favor of building the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, across six states to oil refineries in south Texas. Obama has yet to give the pipeline the thumbs up or down, but he seemed to ignore the arrest of more than 1,200 pipeline opponents in front of the White House several weeks ago. And he has ignored the top NASA scientist, James Hansen, who has stated that the mining and burning of the tar sands oil would mean "game over" for the world's climate. Again, Obama seems to be favoring the myriad lobbyists for Big Oil.


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While these and other actions have been very disturbing to those who care about clean water, clean air and a livable climate on Earth, they seem to be indicative of Obama's lack of a willingness to fight for his beliefs and to call the Republicans on their repeated lies about his programs. He folded on his promise to let the Bush tax cuts for the rich expire. This August in the debt-ceiling negotiations, he pledged not to sign any budget deal that failed to include revenue increases. When the Republicans called his bluff, he folded again. Why did he not stand firm on his demand and rely on the Constitution to raise the debt ceiling?

Recently, he has mostly stayed, to his detriment, within the bubble of the Washington Beltway and has listened mostly to his closest circle of advisors. According to recent press reports, White House advisors are angered by any critiques of his leadership style, seeing his main problem as his failure to adequately tell the story of his accomplishments. While touting his successes is important, his most pressing problem by far is his failure to lead.

But in his two most recent speeches, one on his jobs plan, the other on his debt-reduction plan, Obama showed much more willingness to stand and fight with his Republican opponents. For the first time, he pledged to travel all over our country to aggressively sell his jobs proposal — his recent speeches in several states, including North Carolina, have continued his aggressive stance. Republicans are already following their predictable game plan to "just say no" to both proposals. On taxing the rich, the Republicans' worn-out claim of "class warfare" is now mostly falling on deaf ears.

So the question is, which Obama will show up in pursuit of his plans? Will it be Obama the Capitulator, as Republicans fully expect, or will it be the forceful Obama that his supporters have long hoped for?

Harvard Ayers

Harvard Ayers is professor emeritus of anthropology at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

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