President Obama, stop backpedaling

September 3, 2011

The lasting image from the Georgetown basketball team’s fight in China last month was this: a frightened and overmatched player fleeing several determined foes.

The disturbing scene came to mind this week when President Obama, after requesting a joint session with Congress, changed the date to appease Republicans. Backpedaling, it seems, is a recurring narrative when it comes to Obama, and it’s getting old.

This is not a criticism of the basketball players. They were on a goodwill mission when attacked. The players and their coach are to be commended for showing something not shown to them: sportsmanship.

But let’s go back in time with Georgetown, back to the mid-1980s. There, you’d find John Thompson Jr., towel over his shoulder, stalking the sidelines of Hoya games. He glared at players and referees.

I remember him as a man who stood up to a notorious drug dealer who dared to reach out to his kids. He challenged an education system that employed him to do better by black children, forcing change in hallowed halls that resisted it. Even from where I sat at the time, in small-town Louisiana, Thompson came across as a leader, a guy who meant what he said and deserved to be followed.

Which brings me back to Obama, the leader of the free world. He has a tough job, ruling a divided government and fighting foes who are willing to go to great lengths to make sure his policies don’t succeed and to embarrass him at every turn.

But this ought to be a fair fight. After all, Obama lives in the White House, rides on Air Force One and controls the reins of government. He was elected with a far larger mandate than many who now oppose him. He has power, and he ought to be flexing it.

His supporters are pleading: Please throw a rock on our behalf.

Instead, Obama seems to go out of his way to make himself smaller. When the so-called birthers — and often-silly media — continued to raise questions about whether he was born in the United States, the president released his birth certificate. Always a bad move to give in to this type of nonsense, because it eggs others on to be just as unreasonable.

We saw that on the debt deal. Much to the dismay of Obama’s supporters, the “deal” included only cuts and no additional revenue from those most able to pay. It’s the reason Speaker John Boehner (R) felt emboldened to tell the president that he couldn’t make a speech before Congress on the day he wanted to.

What Obama should have said was this: Thanks, John, but Democrats control the Senate, so I will make the speech with or without you.

But that’s not the way the president operates. I don’t know if he just wants to be liked or whether he really thinks he can change people’s minds and hearts. Whatever he’s thinking, it’s not working. Give-and-take, people understand. Surrender, not so much. Care about your ideas and principles as much as the other side cares about theirs.

Thompson, when he was at Georgetown, blazed trails that others followed, speaking up for young men whose lives had been devalued. He wasn’t perfect, and maybe he wasn’t always right. But he was fighting for what he believed, even as he was labeled a loudmouth and a bully and called names by racists. His job was molding men, not just basketball players, a job worth fighting for.

Obama has promises to keep to the coalition that elected him. Those voters — in all hues of the rainbow — need jobs and feel like too much attention is paid to the worries of the fat cats, same as they were under President Bush. Obama’s supporters are not clamoring for cuts as the economy stalls and can’t understand why their president would be either.

Perhaps it’s time for Obama to learn a lesson from Thompson, rather than the overmatched youngsters who were chased out of a basketball gym in China.

Stand on a piece of ground, and defend it with all of your might.

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