This appeared as an op/ed in the Baltimore Sun, toward the end of President Obama’s first year in office.
Dear President Obama,
Since your inauguration, your power has diminished and the prospects for your being a transformational president have declined. Here’s why, and here’s how you can restore that potential with which you began your presidency.
First the why: Once in office, you grew weaker because you detached yourself from the forces that swept you into the White House.
It was a moral and spiritual force that lifted you to the presidency, a force expressed by the yearnings of millions for America to rise from the darkness into which your predecessor had led us.
The unprecedented nature of your election – a relatively inexperienced black man reaching the highest office in the land – was possible only because of the unprecedented nature of the moral and spiritual damage the Bush presidency had inflicted upon the nation (with its reign of lies, fomenting of division, waging of unnecessary war, and usurpatious trampling on the Constitution and the rule of law) and because of the sense of purity and elevation you conveyed in your campaign.
On Election Night, illuminated by the spirit that shone in the faces of the throng in Grant Park and, indeed, around the world, your potential to reshape this country was huge.
You are smaller now, and this diminution was not inevitable.
You were brought to power as the champion of light over darkness, and you squandered it by neglecting that role. In this, there have been three main errors.
First, you spoke to us mainly as a policy wonk and did little to connect your plans with our moral and spiritual yearnings.
Second, and more important, you too readily muddied the moral waters, blurring the battle lines. Perhaps underestimating the strength available to you from a course of greater boldness and moral clarity, you were over-eager to make bargains – often bad ones, at that – with the forces you had been elected to combat.
To name one area of such muddying: Political reality may have dictated “looking forward and not backward” when it came to prosecuting or even investigating the previous administration’s crimes – though they’re crimes of the kind about which our Founders worried most. But why send your own Justice Department into court to defend the indefensible?
(Like, most recently, arguing for the immunity of those in George W. Bush’s Department of Justice who wrote memos in apparent bad faith to declare legal what were crimes: If the memos’ writers are immune because they simply gave opinions, and if everyone who follows those opinions is immunized by the memos, then all future presidents have a blueprint for committing any crime they choose.)
But perhaps still more important than your muddying the moral waters has been your failure to deal with your opposition for the amoral force it is. It may be good political strategy not to look “backward” at the darkness of the Bush presidency, but it is a major strategic mistake not to confront that same force of darkness so relentlessly assaulting you now on issues ranging from whether you were born in the U.S. to whether you’re coming to take people’s guns away to whether you’re dismantling American capitalism.
That your opposition is animated by that same dark spirit is shown in their making a divisive war of nearly every issue; in their continuous propagating of fear-mongering lies; and, above all, in their overriding commitment, even at a time of multiple national crises, to making you fail, simply so they can regain power.
But, except for rare instances, you’ve ignored how extreme and destructive is your opposition’s behavior by the lights of American ideals and the standards of American history.
Yes, you’ve denied some of their lies, but you’ve not called out the lying. When Sarah Palin and her ilk accuse you of supporting death panels, and you respond by saying, “That’s not true, there are no death panels,” the national conversation centers on the question: “Are there death panels?” But if you say, “It’s unpatriotic for Republicans to degrade our national discourse with fear-mongering lies,” then the media will focus on the question: “Are the Republican peddling lies?” The first question undermines you; the second discredits your opposition.
It is because of your failure to fight back that the Republican Party – behaving more scandalously than any political opposition in memory – has grown stronger, while you have grown weaker.
Your September speech on health care reform to the Joint Session of Congress proved that when you act as the champion of the good and opponent of evil, you grow in power. Overnight, by inspiringly connecting your goals with our moral and spiritual ideals, and subtly but forcefully calling out the dark doings of your opposition, you turned the direction of the political struggle around.
Every day, you should ask yourself: “What can I do in that same spirit – holding up the torch and fighting the darkness – that I expressed in that speech?”
Your opponents are relentless, single-minded and ruthless in their efforts to weaken and destroy you. This is a continuation of the same struggle for which Americans chose you to be their champion. It’s your job not to ignore the battle but to fight and win it.