The Nov. 2 midterm election results exposed a weakness in President Obama’s administration that hasn’t been mentioned in the post-election commentary.
Conservative (Republicans and Tea Party types) say the election results show that Americans don’t like health care reform, the economic stimulus measures proposed during the final days of the second Bush presidency and supported by President Obama, and other Obama initiatives.
Other observers say Americans are simply angry about the economy, job situation, housing situation and other things. What the election results truly show is that President Obama’s administration needs to embrace an Ezekiel – meaning prophetic – approach toward his critics and the issues.
Obama came to power as the great communicator whose rhetorical skills touched people across the usual boundary lines of identity politics (political party, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, ability and so on). But he has never appeared comfortable taking a prophetic stance.
When the president criticized during a press conference the arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by white Cambridge police sergeant James Crawley in 2009 (Obama said that Crawley acted “stupidly”), the White House quickly retreated after receiving criticism about the remark. Then Obama invited Gates and Crawley to meet with him for what became known as “the beer summit.” The prophetic moment was turned into a social call.
At no time since his inauguration has President Obama effectively used the bully pulpit in a prophetic sense. His economic team didn’t condemn the financial markets. The administration hasn’t pursued or exposed the people who instigated the policy whereby detainees were tortured. The administration seemed unwilling or unable to condemn the people who slandered its policies or Obama’s birthplace, citizenship and legitimacy.
Oddly, Obama’s spokespeople seem to have been more willing to chastise the people advocating for social justice than those resisting it.
There was no White House condemnation of Rush Limbaugh’s hope that Obama’s presidency would be a failure. Even now, the White House seems to have no prophetic inclination to confront Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said that his primary interest in the next two years is to defeat Obama in 2012.
Perhaps Obama believes his administration needs no prophetic voice, or he considers the prophetic role unsuitable. If so, he should reconsider. Leadership requires more than clear vision. Effective leadership also demands that one have the courage and audacity to look critics and sympathizers in the eye and speak truth to power. Obama’s supporters have been frustrated because they sense that essential dimension of leadership is in short supply, if not missing.
Prophetic leadership demands that one be willing to define situations and responses in ethical terms. When Tea Party sympathizers began characterizing the bank and domestic auto industry bailout measures and health care reform initiative as socialism, Obama didn’t call or demonstrate that the accusations were untrue and unprincipled. The Tea Party movement appeared prophetic because its self-righteous rhetoric and conduct were never challenged and condemned.
It’s not too late for Obama to change course, but the course correction should be made swiftly and decisively. He should first confront the lies about the midterm elections. Republicans didn’t win because Americans are angry at Obama. They won because Americans were sold lies (about health care reform, economic stimulus efforts, and efforts to stimulate more jobs) that Obama didn’t confront and condemn effectively and prophetically.
Then Obama should be prophetic about what he’s trying to accomplish. John Boehner may want health care reform repealed, but Obama and Boehner know that won’t happen. Obama should say so. Obama should allow the Bush-era tax cuts to expire and explain why doing so is right for the economy and fair. He should also end the discriminatory and dysfunctional “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward homosexuals by executive order the same way President Harry Truman ended racial segregation in the military.
Like the prophet Ezekiel, Obama is dealing with a stubborn opposition that supported eight years of unjust public policies. He needs to claim his prophetic voice so that “whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they will know that there has been a prophet among them” (Ezekiel 2:5).
Mr. President, the issues facing our society and world demand the will and skill of a prophet. You’ve shown you can communicate. I suggest that you channel Ezekiel. Be a prophet.
Wendell L. Griffen is pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.