Monday, September 27, 2010

A Hollywood Romance Gone Bad: Obama and Leadership Expectations

Theatre. This is what a lot of us seem to want from their leaders, be it political, spiritual, or whatnot. The actual decisions they make, or ethics they display, tend to drop off to the side, that is, until we begin to experience the impact of said leaders.

The following is from an article examining U.S. President Obama current image amongst the American public.

Obama performs the presidency badly. Over the past two years he has managed to come across as aloof, detached and occasionally dithering. On a human level his professorial demeanour makes him look like a leader who understands but does not necessarily feel. On a presidential level it makes him look like a leader who prefers to think than to act.

This dislocation is particularly acute because his candidacy – rooted in the promise of change – endowed his presidency with expectations of transformation both symbolic and substantial that no individual could possibly meet.

This became painfully apparent last week during a televised town hall meeting when Velma Hart, a black woman – the demographic bedrock of Obama's base – expressed her frustration with his presidency. "I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now."

Obama acknowledged hard times but went on to answer with a laundry list of achievements. His answer was competent but at no time did it emotionally connect with her or anyone else. Afterwards, Hart told the Washington Post: "I think he has made progress. I just thought by now the progress would be more evident for the man-on-the-street level. I thought there was something special and secret he knew that would make things operate differently."

Asked if she thought her expectations had been unrealistic, she said: "Absolutely. It took decades to get here. He's only been in office for two years. But I guess I started to believe, on some small level, that he had a magic wand."

Now, I think there are a number of factors playing into the diminished approval of Obama's "performance," racism and a shitty economy high on the list. But what I'm interested in is the expectations people place upon leaders, specifically the desire to experience a personal, emotional connection with said leader.

Expecting a Miracle Worker

Those who know me know that long before the 2008 Presidential election, I declared Obama to be yet another centrist Democrat with little intention to upset the status quo. Part of me wanted to be wrong, but I wasn't. In fact, while friends and members of my family drooled over the man's speeches, I read the transcripts and pointed out exactly what candidate Obama was saying behind the excitement. You might say I was a bit of killjoy, but it was clear to me early on that people were placing an endless amount of projections on this one man, and his potential to "wave a magic wand" and create a better, more just nation.

Expecting a Personal Barometer to Connect with

The article above points to what I'd call "the emotional gap" between the President and many in the American public. People want him to be angry when they are angry. Sad when they are sad. Questioning when they are questioning. And well, you get the idea. After eight years of the faux folksy, tempermental like a teenager leadership of President Bush, the arrival of a calm, cerebral Obama was welcomed by a majority of Americans, even some who didn't vote for him. And yet, those same qualities are now viewed as a disconnect, as if the President "doesn't feel our pain." And maybe he doesn't. Many of his policy decisions seem to suggest as much. But even if the man sincerely wishes to do what's best for people who have long suffered in this nation, he doesn't "act like it."

Wanting to be Seduced

When it comes to politics, I'm pretty convinced the majority of people would rather be seduced by a charismatic actor than select the person who's ideas best fit what the current situation calls for.

And you know what, the same is often the case when it comes to our expectations of spiritual leaders. If Bishop Eddie Long and Barack Obama were in a competition for the leadership of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church before each had risen to fame, Long would have won hands down. The guy oozes emotional charisma and connectivity, even in the face of a sex scandal that could bring his downfall.

Admit it. You want to have the kind of teacher who sweeps you off your feet with their brilliance, feels your every last pain and grief, and always knows how to make you smile. You don't want to learn, and work hard, and take responsibility - you want a Hollywood romance, complete with an enlightened ending. Never mind that many of these kinds of leaders tend to create serious messes in their wake. Never mind that every good piece of theatre you've ever seen contains it's share of conflict and misery. You want the impossible and you want it now!

Velma Hart and the millions of others like her who have spent countless hours "defending" the Obama Administration are mostly trying to maintain the walls between the Hollywood romance they thought they had gotten, and the reality that actually is. It is a mistake that we all make in our lives about something, but one that seems exceptionally poignant when leaders are involved because of the heavy consequences that tend to follow.


Unknown said...

All true. But there's another issue that's got me feeling down about Obama: We got the best centrist Democrat that we could have possibly asked for. And realistically, there's no way that a left-of-center Democrat could have been elected. But Democratic Party centrism isn't enough to challenge the forces that are dragging down American democracy. If the best of what's possible isn't enough, then where do we go from here?

kevin said...

You've got some good points. Although I'm somewhat apolitical due to my station in life, I agree.

Bush was the fun loving, charismatic "bad boy" best friend who got us arrested and so we called daddy (elected Obama) to come bail us out.

Bush wasn't responsible and can't be dad, but Obama's not charismatic and daddy doesn't make for a good best friend.

I don't want some leader to come sweep me off my feet, that's way off in Washington and realistically so little change can trickle all the way down to my personal level with any momentum that it can't make a real difference.

I know this may not be true for everyone. Political decisions can affect change in the economy that can leave people homeless. But just as I don't want factory workers or bankers deciding food handling policy out of ignorance of the matter, why should I ignorantly have a say in policy concerning them?

If some awful decision is made that affects my life detrimentally, I can't blame anyone but myself for not having had a hand in stopping it. And that's why I have my practice, to bring me peace in any circumstance.

Our system relies on lobbyists to realistically portray the aspect of life they represent to our representatives in whom we've placed our trust to make the right decisions based on that info. The president's just a brand name; determining the mood for how the government will function.

Thanks for the post and observations. I haven't really been paying too much attention to how people think Obama's doing so this was a heads up.

Nathan said...

I'd actually argue that some of that "centrism" is part of what's dragging down this nation. Neither party is willing to break free from the corporate stranglehold, and the Republicans are entirely too invested in oppressive social issue stances. Until enough people break away from the "realistic" and "electability" games and take a risk on something different, we'll continue to get the same old shit. And until enough people stand up and demand something different for an extended period of time, the leaders that we do have won't have to worry. They can just keep fighting with each other in public, while both sides get rich from corporate donations in the process.

I think things will have to get worse before anything better comes along unfortunately.

Nathan said...

The popularity of the Tea Party speaks to the fact that people are starting to get really frustrated and want to see something different. But the Tea Party not only lacks a clear agenda, but it's leading financial backers really don't want anything major to change. They just want to rile up the social (and some fiscal) conservatives enough to make them think something will really change.

Algernon said...

The voters mistook a great campaigner for a great leader. He sold something he could not deliver. And now Biden is out there telling disappointed Obama supporters to "stop whining" because the other choice -- the only other political party our system allows to share power -- is so much worse.

It's quite a racket that these two parties and their supporters have worked out.

Anonymous said...

I wish
Carol had a little something to offer besides this is as good as it gets resignation

Kevin had some facts: sorry the system relies on informed voters & elected officials including yours not cynicism about lobbiests.

for less Fox type opinions about center-ism, lib'ral-ism more policy and leadership:
for job creation
for aid to education
against tax deductions for the wealthiest 1%
for health care reform
for financial re-regulation
for rebuilding and renewing our wasted resources

I don't go for curses against the future in the form: " until x condition then y"

I insist on voting against representatives like Michelle Bachman and for representatives like Betty McCallum.

Do you know what your voting district is? Are you registered? I hope so.

I agree with Nathan, it is going to get worse and it is going to take a long time to fix what the Republicans broke -wall street vegas and Mid-East military interventions.