Step up, Mr. President

President Obama, we have never met, but I’m one of your most committed supporters. I’ve contributed thousands of dollars, thousands of hours to your campaigns and to the fight for health reform. I’m so proud of your intelligence, decency, and integrity. I’m gratified to have given every dollar, every hour I devoted to your campaigns and to these worthy causes. I weep for my country, that a man of your comprehensive excellence will be replaced by a figure of such comprehensive unworthiness as Donald Trump.

President Obama visiting Hyde Park Academy, Chicago, Illinois. One of my first pics with the new zoom lens.

Despite–or rather because of my pride in you, I am troubled by your equivocal performance at perhaps your last press conference today. In its way, this was a low point of your presidency, rivaling your defeat at the hands of Republicans in the debt ceiling crisis and your defeat in the first 2012 presidential debate. We are in a national crisis, and we are looking to you.

The majority of Americans—we who voted for you, and many who did not—are frightened for our future. We are uncertain about the opaque finances, entanglements, and intentions of our incoming President. We are looking for you to lead us. We know that you have an awesome responsibility to ensure the peaceful transfer of power, and to maintain a minimum of decorum in a polarized time. You have other responsibilities, too.

Some have called upon you to take dramatic action before January 20, perhaps a special session of Congress to address the President-elect’s conflicts of interest and the Russian hack. I’m not sure what to think about that.

At minimum, I wish that you had said today some obvious things that need to be said. You didn’t have to harshly condemn the President-elect or to become a bitter antagonist in the political fray. You could have spoken in the precise, civil, and frank locution we have come to expect from you in moments of national difficulty and pain.

Here, for example, are some things that should be said:

Given the whisker-thin electoral college margin, Russian interference on behalf of Mr. Trump obviously casts some shadow over the outcome. That’s the reality. Of course, we can never know whether this made a decisive difference. It mattered, alongside other important things that also mattered. We can all recognize that reality, whether we voted for Mr. Trump, for Secretary Clinton, or for some other candidate.

Given the divisive campaign and Secretary Clinton’s securing the popular vote, President-elect Trump has a special responsibility to reach across the aisle. He has a special responsibility to be scrupulous and transparent about his complicated financial affairs, so that the American people can be absolutely  sure that he has no conflicts of interests, foreign entanglements, or vulnerabilities, given what we know just unfolded. I have spoken with him about these matters.

I’m not sure how Mr. Trump or his supporters would have reacted to such comments. I do know many are hungry for you to be more assertive—not as a Democrat but as President of a nation whose political system has just been badly damaged.

You missed an opportunity to do that today. Fortunately, you are still President of the United States. I hope that you use the next month effectively. At times, you must help our next president as he prepares to assume this awesome job. Other times, you must help the rest of us, as we prepare to resist his unworthy efforts to undo your own worthy legacy.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

4 thoughts on “Step up, Mr. President”

  1. We'll have to disagree as to the appropriateness of the President delivering such remarks, but I will observe that you are expecting Barack Obama to suddenly become someone that he has never been. The personality traits that keep him from giving the speech you want him to have, on balance, been a tremendous asset in how he has conducted himself as president. Now is the moment to accept that he is who he is.

  2. Harold's suggestions tie in with Robert Yablon's proposal that the Electors should not unseat Trump but negotiate with him to extract concessions and undertakings, such as an independent investigation of Russian interference in his election.

    1. Leaving all else aside, I do not think negotiating anything with Trump is worthwhile without a very big stick to use if he reneges. I don't think the electors will have such a stick.

      Of course if I am right then it will be very hard for anyone, especially foreign countries, to agree to any sort of deal with him.

  3. Obama has been a consummate, brilliant administrator…but he's lacking badly in leadership and the bully pulpit has been all but empty….while various creatures of the Right's swamp have dominated the public arena with fear, hate, bigotry and lies. We could have had an uplifting vision as JFK did so well, we could have had the reassurance of America as FDR did so well with the Fireside Chats. Instead we have had a man behind the curtain that America hasn't paid much attention to. I have been saying for eight years that no matter what Obama achieved….and it has been a lot…all of it could be swept away and vanish if the American people weren't spoken to from the bully pulpit and their hearts lifted by a vision of a greater, kinder America. Never happened, but their hearts have been darkened by the Right.
    And now we will have a true bully in the bully pulpit.

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