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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Leading From the Back

Obama Accepts 21st Century View of Gay Marriage

In the BDSM world the phrase “topping from the bottom” means conditional submission: when the sub questions or disobeys the instructions of his or her dom. Subverting the submissive role defeats the whole purpose of a BDSM relationship; it is thus frowned upon.

President Obama frequently engages in the political equivalent: leading from the back.

True leaders lead. They declare what society needs and tells it what it should want. Leaders anticipate what is possible. They open the space where long-held dreams intersect with current reality, allowing progress. “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail,” Emerson advised.

The role of a leader has been clearly defined since the first time a member of a clan convinced his tribe they should follow him if they wanted to find more food. So why has it been so long since we Americans had real one?

In recent decades we have had two kinds of political leaders, bullies and followers. Beginning with Nixon but more so with Reagan and George W. Bush, Republican presidents have been bullies. Unwilling or unable to achieve the consensus of the majority for their radical agendas, they got what they wanted by any means necessary—corrupting the electoral process, lying, smearing opponents, and fear-mongering.

The Democrats—Carter, Clinton, and Obama—have been followers, and thus far less effectual. Leaders from the back.

Carter was the proto-triangulator, tacking right as a hawk on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iran hostage crisis, while ignoring his liberal supporters. Clinton famously relied on toe-sucking Machiavellian pollster Dick Morris to develop stances and market memes that synced up exactly with public opinion on micro mini wedge issues. Both men left office without any major accomplishments—unless you count their sellouts to the Right (beginning “Reagan”‘s defense build-up, NAFTA, welfare reform).

Obama’s decision to come out in favor of gay marriage is classic Morris-style “leading from the back.”

“Public support for same-sex marriage is growing at a pace that surprises even professional pollsters as older generations of voters who tend to be strongly opposed are supplanted by younger ones who are just as strongly in favor,” notes The New York Times. “Same-sex couples are featured in some of the most popular shows on television, without controversy.”

No wonder: the latest Pew Research poll shows that 47 percent of voters support gay marriage, versus 43 percent against. (Among swing voters—of more interest to the Obama campaign—support is 47-to-39 percent in favor.)

“I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage,” Obama said days before the 2008 election. At that time, Americans were running 40-to-56 percent against allowing same-sex couples to wed.

I can’t read his mind, but I bet Obama was OK with gay marriage in 2008. Like most other educated people. Cynically and wrongly, he sided with anti-gay bigots because he thought it would help him win.

The president’s change of ideological heart was painfully awkward. “I have hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient,” he told ABC. “I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people the word ‘marriage’ was something that invokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth.”

But now that’s changed, he said. “It is important for me personally to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

If Obama was a real leader, he wouldn’t care about offending “a lot of people”—i.e., right-wing homophobes. He would have gotten out front of the issue four years ago, when it mattered. The truth is, Vice President Joe Biden’s unscripted remarks a few days ago forced the issue.

Maybe Biden has the makings of a leader.

Six states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay weddings. True, the president’s statement may hasten the demise of the vile Defense of Marriage Act, which blocks federal recognition of gay marriage (and which Obama’s Justice Department defended in June 2009). But it comes too late to be meaningful.

Gay marriage was a historical inevitability before Obama spoke.

That hasn’t changed.

“For thousands of supporters who donated, canvassed and phone-banked to help elect Barack Obama, this is a powerful reminder of why we felt so passionately about this president in the first place,” said Michael Keegan, president of People for the American Way, a pro-Democratic Party interest group.

Maybe so. I don’t see it that way. I see a nation that led itself on this issue. The public debated and thought and finally, at long last, concluded that gays and lesbians deserve equal treatment before the law.

Obama didn’t lead us. We led him.

So tell me—what good is he, exactly?

(Ted Rall’s next book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” out May 22. His website is tedrall.com.)

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Down and Out at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

What I Would Do If I Were Obama

Jobs, jobs, jobs. Throughout the presidency of Barack Obama, Americans have been preoccupied with jobs. Unemployed people need work. The underemployed need more work. The employed want salaries that go up instead of down.

The rich are worried too. The Depression of 2008-? is killing their stock portfolios.

Most presidents struggle to find the pulse of the people. Trapped in the D.C. bubble, they try to find out what voters want. Obama was lucky. He didn’t have to do that. The U.S. was in the midst of an epic economic collapse in January 2009, and has been ever since. It’s the only issue that everyone, rich to middle to poor, cared about. It still is.

In this single-issue environment, any idiot could have been a successful president. All Obama had to do was express sympathy and understanding while announcing a bunch of jobs initiatives.

Not hard.

Weirdly, though, Obama has focused on everything else except jobs: healthcare, gays in the military, gays getting married, more war against Afghanistan, new war against Libya, secret wars against Somalia and Yemen, the dreary showdown over taxes, budget cuts and the federal debt ceiling.

According to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, Obama’s approval rating is down to 39 percent. The crappy economy—and Obama’s inaction—is the simple cause.

“What Happened to Obama?” Drew Westen asked in a much-passed-around New York Times op-ed. It used to be just me. Now everyone sane agrees that Obama’s presidency has failed.

This is my favorite part of Westen’s postmortem: “Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted “present” (instead of “yea” or “nay”) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.”

Westen is nicer than I am. He left out the fact that Obama had an undistinguished career as a U.S. Senator.

Is Obama a secret pawn of evil plutocrats? Does he suffer a character flaw alluded to in Westen’s piece, that he doesn’t know who he is?

Maybe. But I don’t think so. I think eight years of George W. Bush caused Americans to make a mistake. Obama was calm, so they assumed he was wise.

Obama is calm. He’s calm that it’s hard to tell if he’s sentient. But that doesn’t make him smart. Based on his record before and after becoming president, there’s a better-than-even chance that he’s not very smart.

Let’s be logical. Let’s assume that appearances don’t lie—that Obama doesn’t lose a wink of sleep over the fact that he’s presiding over a disaster that makes 9/11 look like a joke.

Let us further stipulate, for the sake of argument, that Obama isn’t stupid. That he’s merely another cynical and/or corrupt politician. If nothing else, Mr. Cynical (But Intelligent) Dirtbag ought to care about getting reelected.

Right?

If I were in Obama’s shoes, and I had any brains, if I wanted to turn those lousy poll numbers around, I’d hold press conferences to talk about jobs every day. I’d talk about jobs until the media was sick of it. Then I’d do it some more.

I’d spend two or three nights every week couchsurfing with families who were suffering, cameras rolling as I pretended to care about their silly problems with mean bosses and evil health insurers.

Most importantly, I’d set up next year’s television attack ads. I wouldn’t let a single week go by without proposing some piece of legislation related to creating jobs, alleviating the problems of the jobless, and increasing wages.

I’d send Congress huge publics-works bills. I’d ask them to hire millions of unemployed people to work for federal agencies. I’d push for higher unemployment benefits, payments that don’t expire until you find a job. Tax breaks for companies that hire. Tax deductions for those that give raises. Penalties for outsourcing jobs. Keep the Bush tax cuts, but only for the poor and middle class.

Let the Republicans kill my ideas. All the better for my 2012 ad buy! “Republicans voted against new jobs for Americans 22 times. Against helping homeowners keep their houses 15 times. Republicans: They just don’t care about you.” You get the idea.

Of course, a president can accomplish a lot by executive order. Remember that story about how Apple had more ready cash than the U.S. Treasury? Since America obviously needs the money more than Steve Jobs, Obama could have nationalized it and given it to the states in order to bolster their unemployment compensation funds.

American voters are so defeated and disgusted that they no longer demand a president like FDR or LBJ who actually fights for them. They’ll settle for one who goes through the motions.

The question for Obama and his advisors is: Are they smart enough to pretend to care about the only issue that matters to voters?

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL