President Obama, Please, This is Not a Game

I am a sports guy. Like so many in this country, I follow my baseball and football teams with a zeal that is probably best dealt with on a therapy couch. I have also coached teams from little league to high school, and share the president's view that sports can build character in young people.

Having said that, in a short speech to the nation the day after Donald Trump's victory, President Obama used sports themes and similes in a way that trivialized the dangerous situation the country is facing.

Let's take his first sports reference: "Everyone is sad when their side loses an election, but the day after we have to remember that we are actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage." For those who are not familiar with sports jargon, the term "intramural scrimmage" usually refers to a practice session or game between two units of the same team. So before playing an opponent, a team divides itself into offensive and defensive units and then plays a game to get ready and often just to have some fun.

I understand that the president was trying to say that we are all Americans, including Trump. Got that. But the analogy is deficient in so many ways. Let's look at the greatest ecological threat that we collectively face: climate change. Is Trump really on the same "intramural" team as the President and the majority of Americans in their urgent concern about addressing this crisis? Not even close. Trump claims that climate change is a "hoax", conjured by the Chinese to sabotage our economic future. He promised to "cancel" our critical international treaty agreement commitments. He also pledged not only to rescind EPA's regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but to "gut" EPA altogether. He has also tirelessly advocated for more and more coal production, a major contributor to the climate crisis. With the fate of the Earth in the balance in this election, Trump was on a very different team -- one that threatens not only his fellow Americans, but all life on this planet.

Let's look at another example: peace in the Middle East, perhaps the most important foreign policy issue of our time. Because of heroic diplomatic work by Secretary Kerry and others, we have a treaty with Iran that is historic in calming the waters of this turbulent arena where prior U.S. activities have destabilized. Trump, Pence, and their foreign policy team have pledged to "rip up" this treaty and have already resumed highly combative rhetoric about Iran. If successful, their efforts will further destabilize the region and create a far greater chance of regional conflict, and also do grave harm to America's diplomatic reputation around the world. As with climate change, comparing the dangerous consequences of Trump's irrational foreign policy position to a win or loss in a sports scrimmage is mind-boggling, especially for a two-term president who knows what a dangerous world we live in.

A final example is Trump and his transition team's stated commitment to repeal the Dodd-Frank regulations on Wall Street. Only eight years ago, the unrestrained greed of traders, bankers and hedge fund managers brought the U.S. economy and much of the rest of the world to its knees. The cause was clear. Deregulation by the Clinton and Bush Administrations rescinded decades-old critical restraints on Wall Street recklessness. A number of books, documentaries and feature films have detailed this era of the financial sector running amok and its catastrophic impacts. While I am among those who viewed Dodd-Frank as more of a Band-Aid than the surgery needed, nevertheless removing it invites a major collapse of Wall Street in the near future. The U.S. economy barely survived the last economic crisis, and the human suffering it continues to cause is immense. A similar or even greater collapse of an unregulated Wall Street will tear the country apart. While this may be a scrimmage game for some of the Wall Street crowd, it is deadly serious for the rest of us. Having taken office in the wake of a devastated economy, Obama must understand that anyone committed to destroying our defenses against another financial collapse is not on any team devoted to the long-term welfare of this country.

For many, sports foster the "sense of unity and inclusion" that Obama spoke to. But Trump has fostered anything but in his campaign for President. He has relegated women, immigrants, Muslims, and people of color to an uneven playing field, if they're even welcome to play at all. When asked if he thought his incendiary campaign rhetoric had gone too far, he replied, "No. I won." An America that insults, vilifies, and threatens more than half of its population is not one team.

The president made yet another sports comparison at the conclusion of his speech: that of a track meet. He compared himself to a "relay runner" who made progress, and now was executing a good handoff of the baton to his successor. Again, he stressed this was important because "we're all on the same team." Certainly everyone supports an efficient transition from one administration to the next. But this relay race simile is the opposite of the truth. An accurate comparison would be Obama handing off his baton to Trump, and then watching in horror as he turns and runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction. And so it will be unless enough opposition can be organized: backwards on climate, backwards on foreign policy, backwards on civil rights, backwards on financial regulations, and so many other issues critical to the country, the international community, and the planet.

President Obama is well known and at times appropriately admired for his equanimity. However, there are historic and grave moments where mere convention, forced media cheerfulness and banal sports analogies are inapt and a great disservice to the nation and the world. This was only one speech, albeit an important one. Obama has ten more weeks as president to level with the American people about the potentially grave consequences of a Trump presidency. He is in a unique position to remind us that a majority voted against Trump and that this majority needs to do everything in its power to oppose Trump's already announced destructive policy choices and his predictable cabinet choices that will soon be upon us. This may not be a natural instinct for the President. But I know he has long admired Mahatma Gandhi. A picture of the great Indian leader is in the president's office and he quoted him in his Nobel Prize speech. Here is another Gandhi quote I would recommend to him at this crucial time, "Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands the whole truth and acting accordingly."