The Affirmative Action President

I live in Kenya. This weekend President Obama visited with his extended family and government officials. His presence got me thinking about his struggles as President…

On October 9, 2009, the Norwegian Nobel Committee voted to award the Peace Prize to President Obama, citing Obama’s, “promotion of nonproliferation and a new climate in international relations fostered by Obama, especially in reaching out to the Muslim World”.

Many people were stunned. After all here was a young man with great promise but who had not actually accomplished anything important. He paled in comparison to the other nominees who had dedicated their life to a singular pursuit of peace.

According to a USA Today poll at the time, fully 61 percent of Americans felt he did not deserve the Peace Prize.

Many expected the President to turn it down, “in favor of those so much more worthy than I.” Imagine the power of that choice – all the post election doubts about his character and integrity would have been washed away in an instant.

But he accepted the award because for Barack Obama experiences like this were typical. He had received awards like that all his life.

Obama’s early life reads like the obverse of Steve Martin’s opening line from the movie The Jerk – “I was born a poor black child.”

Obama familyHis Kenyan father abandoned him when he was an infant and once he returned from Indonesia, he was raised in a wealthy white suburban environment. In multi-ethnic Hawaii, where African Americans are a mere two percent of the population, being black was never an issue and certainly not a disadvantage. It was like being black in Sweden.

Obama came of age when the institutionalization of concessionary treatment of minorities was at its height. He had the perfect profile to maximize these advantages. As Vice President Joe Biden put it in 2007, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

How else can we explain the easy transfer of a student with a mediocre academic record at a middle-tier west coast college to the Ivy League? How does one become editor of Harvard’s prestigious law review without ever actually having written anything for the review?

The President explained it this way. “I may have benefited from the Law Review’s affirmative action policy” and “I undoubtedly benefited from affirmative action programs during my academic career.” Imagine going through life never having to compete, never being questioned or challenged.

Why does any of this matter? I think it helps us understand his struggle as a leader.

Like many, I was initially taken in by his great speeches and soaring rhetoric. I remember telling colleagues that he seemed like a black JFK – someone that could inspire with words and bring the disaffected younger generation back into the political process.

Unfortunately, there was no life experience to back up those words. Kennedy was a Pulitzer Prize winning author and genuine war hero. Despite his privileged background, he had faced adversity and challenges that Obama could only imagine. He knew that neither the Soviets nor the Japanese Navy cared about his ability to make spellbinding speeches. Kennedy understood that the world was not nice place.

We all knew Obama was not qualified for the job in 2009, but we hoped he had the intellectual acuity and strength of character to grow into it. But if you think about that question from his perspective, there was no reason to change or adapt.

All his life he had found the path of little resistance to huge successes. He would make a speech and people were convinced. As he put it in his memoir, “People tend to see in me what they want to see.” That particular skill, we have discovered, has almost no value once you arrive in the political big leagues. At a minimum it makes one seem untrustworthy.

Once in the White House he discovered there is no affirmative action program for Presidents. He still seems confused by it all. You can picture him puzzling over it.

“I made the famous speech in Cairo so why isn’t the Islamic world falling into line?”

“I made historical concessions to the Iranians so why do I have to suffer these daily ‘Great Satan’ humiliations?”

“I drew a red line with the Syrians but they stepped over it anyway.”

“I launched the ‘reset’ with the Russians so why did they invade the Ukraine?”

“I reminded the Republicans many times in 2009 that I had won and they had lost. In fact, I was in their face about it. So why won’t they simply do what I tell them to do?”

His lack of experience in the key disciplines of management and governing were compounded by his lack of life experience. He never needed to build productive relationships with opponents because in the Chicago and Illinois political world he did not have any. He was missing the toughness that comes from struggling, failing, learning and getting stronger. His character is weak and it did not take long for our adversaries to see it.

Today, in light of the UN Security Council endorsement of an eventual nuclear-armed Iran and the chaos in the Middle East engendered in part by a feckless American foreign policy, it is easy to see that the Peace Prize was perhaps premature.

And through it all, President Obama is none the wiser.