- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In the government and politics classes I teach, we discuss and debate the multiple roles of the American president. They range from commander in chief to political party leader. One key role on that list is that of morale booster - the continuing need to help make the American people feel better and build public confidence when things aren’t going so well; providing a needed shot of optimism to the national psyche when it is down.

It is a role Americans have come to expect from their presidents, starting with George Washington. It is a role that President Obama has yet to master.

Whether it be bucking us up in the face of a tough economy, convincing us that the treacherous path we are on in Afghanistan is the right one or calming a jittery populace during the bitter deficit-debt debate that raged in the capital for the past month, the president’s words - and there have been many - did little to give us comfort and much to exacerbate the unease.

Optimism in the face of adversity is not an Obama virtue, despite his 2008 election campaign based upon the virtue of hope. Each time he publicly spoke about the budget stalemate, Americans came away feeling more irritated, angrier and frustrated; anything but optimistic. If Franklin Roosevelt had displayed the Obama demeanor during the Great Depression when he confidently told the nation, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” the 1933 suicide rate might have soared.

Consider these Obama examples:

c He scared the hell out of seniors when he said he could not guarantee that Social Security checks would go out if an agreement is not reached.

c He admonished the bickering Congress for acting like children, belittling them by saying that if his daughters, Malia, 13, and Sasha, 10, can finish their homework on time, why can’t they?

c He repeatedly divided the nation and helped create resentment between classes by asserting that the poor, the elderly, the ill and schoolchildren who depend upon the government for support will suffer if the rich don’t pay more taxes. “Most Americans, regardless of political party, don’t understand how we can ask a senior citizen to pay more for her Medicare before we ask a corporate jet owner or the oil companies to give up tax breaks that other companies don’t get,” he said in his July 25 address to the nation.

c He, aided in large part by a news media that depicted the debate as political chicanery, undermined confidence in the American democratic system by implying, if not directly saying, that compromise on big political issues in a nation as large and diverse as ours should be easy, not messy and difficult, as the Founders designed it and our civics classes taught us.

c And his call upon Americans to contact their members of Congress and urge them to compromise was not a demonstration of democracy in action, but a tactic in cynicism. He played on their anger, an anger he helped stoke - not their sense of civic duty to participate, as he should have.

For his efforts, clearly designed to raise his own political stock and lower that of his political opponents, the strategy backfired.

Polls show that Americans feel worse about government, politics and the economy than they did before the president began his admonitions. And while the job approval of congressional Democrats and Republicans has plummeted, so, too, has Mr. Obama’s - to 42 percent in a recent Gallup poll, the lowest level of his presidency.

In addition to Roosevelt, whose reassuring fireside chats helped ease the minds of an economically troubled people, we don’t have to go back far to find examples of presidents playing the role of morale booster in dark days:

c With the United States eyeball to eyeball with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis and the world on the brink of nuclear war, John F. Kennedy appealed to the people’s courage: “The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.”

c Ronald Reagan’s Berlin admonition, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” not only reassured Americans that the Cold War was worth it, but also boosted the hope of those behind the wall dreaming of freedom.

c And with Americans still dazed after the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks, George W. Bush lifted millions of heavy hearts when he grabbed a bullhorn at ground zero and shouted, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

So where do we go from here? In the coming months, more budget fights loom in Congress as the economy continues to sputter and jobs remain hard to come by. Will Mr. Obama rise to the occasion and play his role of national morale booster with optimism, or will he continue on the path of bashing the system and belittling his Republican opponents?

On Wednesday, in a speech in Chicago at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser, Mr. Obama sounded some of the right notes.

“In this kind of environment of 24-hour cable chatter and big money flooding the airwaves and slash-and-burn politics, sometimes I think that core belief in what is possible here in America gets lost,” he said. “It’s our job to constantly restore it and revitalize it and to have confidence in the American people.”

Sounds good. Let’s see if he can do it.

Richard Benedetto, a retired USA Today White House correspondent, now teaches journalism and politics at American and Georgetown universities.

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