Obama Behind the Desk

June 16, 2010

Barack Obama behind his desk

Last night, on June 15, 2010, President Obama gave his first speech to the nation from the Oval Office—a setting associated with somber situations and the need for national unity. The situation this time was the oil in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, which is the result of our country’s complicity in corporate contracts as well as BP’s ineptitude and shameless lack of concern for the environment from which they take their immense profits. President Obama sat behind his desk, and he spoke about the seriousness of this catastrophe. He spoke about a national mission. He spoke about our addiction to oil. But it wasn’t enough.

I wanted him to sound tougher. Not John Wayne tough. Barack Obama-the-candidate tough would have been just fine. I wanted to get a sense that he’s as angry and sad and frustrated and distraught about this as I am. But I don’t think he sees that as his role; his role is to project the calm sense of forward motion that is required to solve problems. I want the problem solved, true, and I still have some faith that he might be able to get some things done that will solve some parts of it. (How’s that for a realistic assessment of the qualified power of government?)

Each of us, I hope, has someone we can vent to. We all need a person in our lives who can stand there and take our heat, hear us cry, stay steady while we scream, and still love us when we’re all done emoting. I have never expected my president to be that person. I have always proclaimed that the president is a person we hire to do a job. Do I expect my boss to be my confidant, my “Miss Lonelyhearts”? No. Nor do I expect him to be a churchgoer, a nonsmoker, or faithful to his wife. I simply expect him to do his job. And, when President Obama was behind that desk, I expected nothing more than for him to do his job, but . . .

Truth be told, I realize that I also did want him to mirror what I was feeling. That’s part of effective leadership—to let the people you’re leading know you’re acting, calmly and responsibly, but with acknowledgment of the crazed, irresponsible undercurrents that surround the situation. You have to somehow step in front of the desk while sitting behind it, step out in front of the country the way candidate Bill Clinton stepped out toward the audience at the infamous town hall meeting when I suddenly knew he would win the 1992 presidential election.

I want President Obama to solve our problems, first and foremost but—just as important, I now see—I need to know he feels our pain.

Bill Clinton's connection with the audience, 1996

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