Barack Obama hasn't been able to catch much of a break recently. The political landscape has devolved even further into high-school-style cliques and infighting, to the extent that there isn't much else going on of substance in Washington. Obama's hair may be going gray faster than expected, but he keeps a smile on his face and sticks to his message.
Criticism lately has come not just from the right, but from Obama's own party, and from prominent African Americans. With frustrations high and solutions still a bit unclear, we should expect the pressure to become intensified in the coming months. However, it is crystal clear to me that there are unrealistic expectations of the president.
Cornel West and Tavis Smiley conclude that Barack Obama is afraid of the black community in this country. In the case of Dr. West, this has been an issue since Obama's 2008 election, when West criticized the senator from Illinois for being hesitant to speak on black issues. More recently, West has called the president a "black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats."
Speaking about his colleague Tavis Smiley, West said, "Obama won't touch him with a 10-foot pole." Smiley agrees, complaining that the president has not visited any of his TV or radio programs since he took office. However, this begs the question of why Tavis Smiley believes the president owes it to him to appear on his shows. It doesn't appear to be a problem, unless you happen to be Tavis Smiley.
"I think too often he compromises, too often he capitulates. I think the Republicans know that," Smiley says, adding, "I think they laugh when he's not around."
But what choice does Obama really have? To not compromise would be to blatantly ignore the voices of many in a country divided and without a clear majority on almost every issue. When it comes to the absurd scenario that was the debt ceiling crisis, to not compromise would have been to punish the entire nation, which Tea Party Republicans seemed happy to do. There is no doubt that Obama would have been blamed for the fallout.
The Tea Party continues to add fuel to the fire in Washington, but it's hard to see the message in the mayhem when the organization's vitriol is so determinedly hateful. Of course, it is necessary to address issues on which they disagree with the president, but the way that energy is channeled into anger has long had obviously dangerous consequences, which Tea Party leaders don't appear to mind.
For every few signs held up at a Tea Party rally that mention unemployment, there is one calling Barack Obama a Muslim terrorist who has infiltrated the White House. For every few signs that raise the issue of government spending, there is one demanding that Obama be sent back to Kenya. These rallies are often overrun by blatant hate speech, and while one can't always hold leaders directly responsible for what their supporters believe, the Tea Party does much more to encourage than dissuade it.
The people the president has to work with these days may be angry and radical, but he still does have to work with them. President Obama remains willing to compromise, he continues to keep a smile on his face, and he sticks to his message. When even this is seen as a weakness, what exactly is a man to do?
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) recently told the Tea Party to "go straight to hell!" -- an ineloquent remark at best, which can only work against her and other Democrats. It's clear that there is a great deal of frustration on both sides of the floor in Congress, and Rep. Waters isn't afraid to fire back from the left with the same venom. Even she, though, in spite of their common ground, has tough words for President Obama: "What we want to do is, we want to give the president every opportunity to show what he can do and what he's prepared to lead on. We want to give him every opportunity, but our people are hurting. The unemployment is unconscionable. We don't know what the strategy is."
A lot of people seem to think they own Barack Obama right now, and when they don't get the reaction they want from pulling his strings, they call him a puppet to somebody else. The president has a whole lot of work to do and a great many needs to tend to, but the impression across the board is that people believe the president should work for them and them alone.
Obama keeps a smile on his face and sticks to his message: "The vision that brought us together in 2008, that's undiminished in me."