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An Open Letter to President Obama

Dear President Obama:

I find myself ending 2009 feeling far less optimistic than I did one year ago. I supported you, not because you were the most experienced candidate or the one with the most impressive résumé, but because I thought I recognized in you a genuine leader capable of persuading every American to face up to our common challenges with courage and self-sacrifice. In accomplishing that, I hoped that you would also assuage and quiet the partisan rancor that has fractured this nation for decades.

In January, as you took the oath of office, we were looking at a landscape covered with litter and carnage, mostly left behind by the big-stick-wielding, with-us-or-against-us, “if it’s good for the rich, it’s good for everybody” policies of the previous administration. That horizon, so completely trashed and blighted, actually offered us great opportunity to do the very thing you promised so often and so eloquently: to affect change we could believe in. Few disagreed with the need for taking a fresh and more positive course. And those who favored the status quo were cowering in their mole holes, too timid and humiliated to poke their heads out.

Too big to fail had to be ended. It was unanimous. Wall Street gamblers had to be restrained. Health Insurers who boosted profits by denying coverage to sick people and the disadvantaged, needed to be disciplined. We were on the verge of getting some big things done. Everybody knew it; and many of us thought you were the man for the job.

You hit the ground running, declaring an end to U.S.-sponsored torture and pledging to close the detention center at Guantanamo. “Hallelujah,” we rejoiced, “the White House is finally inhabited by a man of conscience!” Overnight, the hostile, ugly-American, Bush/Cheney image had been eclipsed by that magnanimous, Obama smile. You demonstrated American exceptionalism by publicly admitting and setting out to correct the errors born of that very attitude of smug, arrogant superiority.

Then the wheels came off the bus. As necessary as was the bank bailout, you enlisted a posse of Wall Street insiders to give a wink and a nod to business as usual. Change? I think not. Too-big-to-fail institutions became even bigger. They refused to lend money to small businesses or to restructure usurious mortgages, while passing out massive bonuses to executives whose questionable practices had created the need for the bailout in the first place. And still, they went on gambling with impunity, assuming that, should they fail again, the taxpayers’ money will always be there.

The rest of the year was consumed by the health care debate. Instead of clearly articulating the real need for reform and setting the bar for success, you stood by while bogeyman fear mongering—“Death Panels” and an evil government takeover—hijacked the discussion. Turns out, candidate Hillary Clinton was absolutely right, as she scolded you in debate after debate. “If you don’t enter the battle fighting for universal care,” I’m paraphrasing here, “you’ll never get anything remotely close.” Starting with an announced intent to compromise does not help us find common ground. Trying to please everyone actually pleases no one at all. Any bill that Blanche Lincoln and Mary Landreau will vote for cannot possibly be the best you can do.

You are the CEO of the executive branch of our government. That means more than just putting an attractive face on the company. You’re there to inform and rally the troops, establish a vision, set specific goals, and lay out a plan for reaching or exceeding those goals. When somebody falls out of line, you’re supposed to give ’em the what for. The CEO explains: “Okay, team, here’s what we’re up against. This is where I want us to be in a year’s time; and this is how we’re gonna get there.” The next declaration should be, “Anybody who is unwilling to go along with the program is welcome to jump ship now, cause we’re settin’ sail!”

A year ago, you and I both naively believed we were poised to bring long-opposing factions together to solve very real problems. So much for that lofty notion. After only 11 months, the wall of division is twice as high. Had I not been a fan of The West Wing, I would likely be catatonic with disillusionment, paralyzed by cynicism. (Watching weekly, as a fictional president’s ideals were shattered to bits by the political forces and special interests that shape—and mangle—our laws, I came to realize that even the tiniest victory is cause for hooting and hollering.)

Unfortunately, at this juncture, we have very little to celebrate. We’re still enmeshed in two very expensive overseas conflicts and continue questionable activities under the banner of national security. We’re still hopelessly dependent on foreign oil and further indebted to foreign investors. The environment remains threatened, while China is already gaining the upper hand in green technology. (At this rate, it won’t be long before we’ll have to borrow money from the Chinese to buy the equipment we need to become energy independent—from the Chinese. That is some kinda irony!) Wall Street can still speculate on hedge funds, derivatives, and credit default swaps—without recrimination. Our infrastructure still crumbles. State coffers are empty. Public education continues to fall short, and college is even further out of reach for too many. Meanwhile, political demagogues, overtly biased pundits, and extremist activist groups are spouting louder and more blatant lies.

If I can speak honestly and very personally here, what it all boils down to is this: you’re too damned nice, too conciliatory, too namby pamby. What do you believe in? Tell us! Put yourself on the line for something—please! I want to see you holding Ben Nelson up to the camera by his ears, the way LBJ did those beagles. I want to see you dragging Joe Lieberman out of the Senate chambers and boxing his Huckleberry-Hound jowls. Forget that bunch on other side of the aisle. Regardless of all the pretty words and big-toothed smiles, they are all out to place stumbling blocks in your path, water down your agenda, and render you impotent. Ultimately, all they care about is watching you fail—no matter what that failure may cost this fragile nation.

I just hope it’s not already too late, and that you are capable of growing quickly into this job. True leadership is called for—Now! Forget the group hug, Mr. President. We both know it ain’t gonna happen.

I wish you and yours a much happier and much more successful New Year,

Rand Bishop

Nashville, TN 37212