Saturday, 5 June 2010

Step aside Obama -- say hello to my Grandma!

President Obama in some circles is known as the Man of Steel. He may or may not have the muscles to pull off that image, but more likely it is a reference to his cool demeanor under crisis - his matter-of-fact but deliberate response to difficult often troubling events. After two seemingly endless wars and a politically charged eight years under the now Facebooked George W. Bush Americans seemed ready for a calm President. Yet, barring Glenn Beck's rant, both Americans and citizens around the world appreciate a bit of emotive empathy. When President-elect Obama refused to intercede with any visible display of sympathy during the winter assault on Gaza just prior to his inauguration, it was labeled damaging to his "global reputation" but it albeit passed with an expectation that he would react more explicitly once he was the actual commander-in-chief.

If there is one thing that the last month has shown is that President Obama is increasingly appearing out-of-touch. His reaction to one of the largest oil-spills (still growing) in world history has been telling. A usual ally Frank Rich is an unusual suspect in the growing criticism of the Administration. In the New York Times recently he labeled the reaction to the spill as perhaps worse than Katrina. Maureen Dowd was equally vicious. While it was Fox News led by Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Mr. Bill who hammered since day one that this was perhaps Obama's Katrina, that language now cuts across all political circles. Although the President has visited Louisiana twice in the course of a week it took him 45 days to do that. Only when Larry King prodded him in an interview yesterday did the President assert that he is "furious." Perhaps his handlers appreciate his ability to be calm in a crisis but that should not overwhelm the importance of decisive (although deliberate) leadership, empathy for those afflicted, and a vocal desire to find a solution. The Oval Office is not a professor's desk.

It is tough to be harsh on a President who is inclusive, highly intelligent, and situationally aware in an increasingly complex world. He has taken a concerted effort to push through an important piece of healthcare legislation. He has turned Russia into an ally in nuclear politics. Yet even globally, Obama has been slow in crisis. When Israel's military might clashed with a folly flotilla this past week, Obama was invisible, hiding from view. His spokesperson said that it was not important whether the U.S. condemned the action because "nothing could bring them [the dead] back." That may be true, but it is not really the reaction of a Nobel Peace Laureate (deserved or undeserved). President Obama is sometimes conspicuous in his silence -- a silence that can be tragically deadly. His muted reaction emboldened Eli Yishai to approve housing units in Jerusalem. His diffidence and dithering has allowed the blockade of Gaza to fester with all the volatility to turn into an international nightmare. President Obama came into office just after the bombardment of Gaza that obliterated the territory. To this day no cement has been permitted into Gaza. The reaction from the White House? Silence (except for small soundbites). One can make all the measured speeches in Cairo but there needs to also be specific and forthright reactions/expressions/actions to crises, situations, and events. 

Obama himself is wary of the quick trigger reaction and the information overload facilitated by the 24/7 media environment which he expressed in a speech last month:
And meanwhile, you're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content...And with iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- (laughter) -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it's putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.

Yes there is a surfeit of information flooding our society. Nevertheless, you have to live in the world that you - well live in. Even my Grandma is on Facebook. In fact, just this past weekend she started video-skyping; probably not far off from getting an I-Pad.

Events like the one in the high seas near Gaza or in the seas off Louisiana are not going to go away. People will continue exchanging vigorous views. The discussions will not stop. Charged perceptions will be formed. President Obama cannot be silent nor disengaged nor hide from the world -- if he wants some tips, he may want to reach out to my Grandma down in Florida.

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