THE UNPROPHETIC PRESIDENT
©Wendell Griffen, 2011
The United States government appears on the brink of reaching what pundits are calling a compromise on whether and how to increase the amount the government can borrow to cover its bills—the “debt ceiling.” Political commentators will write about which politicians and political party gained and who lost in this debate.
They should also report that President Barack Obama caved in to those who demanded that the nation make drastic cuts in domestic programs that help the needy, educate children, and care for its elderly. And he refused to command the debate or the outcome so that the nation can receive more money from rich individuals and corporations to pay its bills.
Barack Obama is, by all fair accounts, an honest, intelligent, and personable man. He loves his family. He has overcome many challenges along the way to becoming President of the United States.
But Obama is not a prophetic man. He prefers accommodation with those who would oppress the weak, poor, young, and elderly over confronting them in the name of justice. He appears too ready to embrace political deals that protect the powerful and sacrifice the vulnerable.
After the financial markets suffered a near collapse in 2008 because of corporate greed and malfeasance, the Obama administration sided with bankers and against struggling homeowners who were fighting to avoid foreclosures.
When long-term benefits for unemployed workers were about to expire in 2010, the Obama administration agreed to extend tax breaks for rich people.
When a black mid-level official for the Agriculture Department was falsely accused of making comments that were racially biased, the Obama administration fired her before trying to determine if the accusations were true.
And now, when more children need early childhood programs, more poor people need Medicaid to pay for their health care, and more senior citizens need Medicare to pay for their rising health care, President Obama seems willing to cut federal spending for those programs.
Obama’s willingness to stand against those who are unfairly attacked, the poor, weak, vulnerable, and elderly is odd given his past work as a community organizer when he lived in Chicago. How could someone who did that work and who was baptized into Christianity by Rev. Jeremiah Wright at Trinity United Church of Christ become a political leader willing to cut deals that work against children, the needy, and the elderly?
We can only guess at the answers. Whatever they may be, some things appear clear.
President Obama has not demonstrated the moral courage, inclination, and strength to exercise political power on behalf of the powerless. There are no advocates for the powerless in his Cabinet, within the inner circle of his White House staff, or among those who he recognizes in Congress as his closest allies.
The Obama who was a community organizer and worshipped with people committed to prophetic living for God distanced himself from his former pastor when he decided to run for president. He later severed his tie to that pastor during the presidential campaign and dropped his church membership.
Political rulers need prophetic advisors who remind them that justice involves and requires a lot more than political expediency. But they need something beyond having an occasional chat with a preacher or other moral leader.
Rulers must believe in social justice enough to fight for it. The civil rights laws, the great advances in education, and passage of Medicare happened during the 1960’s because Lyndon Johnson fought for them. Johnson’s policies protected the vulnerable because Johnson demanded it.
Sadly, Barack Obama won’t be remembered as a leader whose policies protected vulnerable children, the elderly, people struggling against poverty, and our elderly. Instead, Obama has favored the powerful, wealthy, and comfortable over the people Jesus called “the least of these.”
How should prophetic people respond?
First, we should admit and express our great regret, disappointment, and righteous anger. Obama’s presidency could have been a time of hopeful change for justice. It hasn’t been. It also doesn’t appear likely anymore.
We should pray for Obama. Whatever caused him to turn away from prophetic leadership is something from which he and our nation need deliverance in a mighty way.
And we should remember that politicians without prophetic hearts and prophetic allies easily become un-prophetic leaders—and therefore less just—despite their other attributes. Obama chose experts in political and commercial expediency rather than prophets for justice as his closest advisors.
Alas, we are known by the company we keep.