Obama the wimp: unable to act like a President

On BP, on Israel... When Obama tries to bark, it comes out as a yip, like a Chihuahua aping a pit bull

Column LAST UPDATED AT 13:15 ON Fri 4 Jun 2010
Alexander Cockburn

Americans don't care to have a wimp in the White House. They'll take almost any outlandish vulgarity from their commander-in-chief and give him a positive job-rating. But wimpishness? No.

Until Obama, the last president to earn wimp ranking was Jimmy Carter whose chances of re-election 30 years ago expired when he gave wimpish speeches about America's "malaise" and was photographed beating off a rabbit that swam up to his canoe and tried to board it.

Obama isn't in that sort of trouble yet, but he's drifting close.

The fates soon sniff out wimps and deal them bad cards. Obama was all set to make a big speech in Chicago on Memorial Day, last Monday. Not only was he rained out but he started quavering to the crowd about the danger of lightning before scuttling off with his Secret Service guards and getting bogged down in a traffic jam.

One of America's greatest heroes is Ben Franklin - featured on that symbol of optimism, the hundred-dollar bill - who made a sporting effort to fry himself, flying a kite into a thunder cloud.

Wimps can't emote convincingly because they're worried about going too far. The White House press corps – until recently without a presidential press conference for 10 months – quizzes Obama's press secretary about Obama's evident inability to project anger about BP's oil spill, now bidding to be the greatest environmental disaster in the nation's history. Obama's flak claimed his boss was "enraged" at BP. "Can you describe it?" asked Chip Reid of CBS. "Does he yell and scream? What does he do?" The best Gibbs could offer was evocation of Obama's "clenched jaw".
 
At least half of any US president's job is play-acting, pretending to be in charge, on behalf of We the People. Most of what actually happens in America is beyond any president's ability or political inclination to control. The banks run the finances. The oil companies and Israel vie for control of US foreign policy. The arms companies arrange the wars. The insurance companies figure out who should live or die.

Bill Clinton was so servile to big business that he took a phone call from a Florida sugar baron, even though Monica Lewinsky was giving him a blow-job when the call came in. He surely shocked the feisty intern with his obsequious manner as the baron issued some crisp commands to knock off all talk about environmental clean-up of the Everglades. But Clinton could still scream and throw his weight around in the manner expected of a president.
 
The all-time presidential champ at bullying was Lyndon Johnson who once lifted up the Greek ambassador by his lapels and snarled at him, "F--- your Parliament and your Constitution. America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If those two fleas continue itching the elephant they may just get whacked by the elephant's trunk. Whacked good..."
  
Obama isn't into lifting up anyone by the lapels. It's the other way round. Week after week he's being hoist off the floor of the Oval Office and thrown against the wall, by everyone from Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan to Benjamin Netanyahu. When Obama tries to bark, it comes out as a yip, like a Chihuahua aping a pit bull.

A year ago Obama gave his famous speech in Cairo, addressing the Muslim World in a constructive manner. He vowed "to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world", declaring, "Islam is a part of America" and "is an important part of promoting peace".
 
It was a great act, but one utterly disconnected from the realities of American politics. Wimps love to be crowd-pleasers. But a year later the crowd - world opinion, in this instance - is remembering the speech as one betrayed commitment after another.

It's clear enough the White House knew of the impending Israeli attack on the relief flotilla and contented itself with a private, pro forma call for restraint. In other words, a green light. It may even have encouraged it, as a signal to Turkey that its initiative with Brazil to defuse the Iran crisis had not found favour with the US government.
 
The White House response to Israel's international piracy was comical in its wimpishness. "The United States deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained and is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy,"  deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton demurely declared in Chicago.

A friend of mine gave a good parody of the servile posture of the US government and press: "I think," he wrote to me, "that matters are close to the point where if Hillary Clinton and a group of senior American officials were meeting the Israeli leaders for negotiations, and Netanyahu expressed his displeasure at the American positions by pulling out a gun and shooting her dead, then having the entire American delegation beaten to death by his security guards, there would probably be a small item buried in the next days' American newspapers that, due to conflict with the Israelis, Obama had decided to nominate a new Secretary of State."
 
A tough and smart general, David Petraeus, is set to run for the Republican nomination in 2012, unwimpish enough to declare that Israeli intransigence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is endangering US security interests in the region.
 
There's a political price to be paid for manifest wimpery. Obama is running up a hefty bill. · 

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