Unlike many cynics, I was touched to learn that the Obamas have continued to enjoy “date nights” since moving into the White House. It’s good for their marriage and that’s good for America! I was especially heartened to discover that the Obamas went to the movies on one of their date nights—in Paris, no less. I envy them. You see, I wish my wife and I went out on more dates—it would be good for us after a third of a century together—and, in particular, I wish we went to see more movies together. (She was the popcorn lady at a city theatre when we began dating, so the cinema still sparks a sense of romance in me, while I suspect it just reminds her of work!)
I’d like to suggest a movie for the Obamas to watch on their next date night. It’s An American President with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. (And it’s not just because every time I see Annette Benning in a movie, my wife whacks me and says, “She’s not talking to you, you know!”) I realize this is a lot to ask for, since going to see a movie about a fictional president when you’re the real thing would be like me, as a minister, going to see another tedious portrayal of Elmer Gantry. Yawn. But this movie should be required viewing on the presidential training curriculum.
I think President Obama could learn a lot from An American President that would help him to better focus on his own stated priorities and even make it easier for him to be president (though not as “easy” as the previous guy seemed to find it). If President Obama doesn’t have time to watch the whole movie, perhaps his staff could give him an executive summary and arrange a screening of a few of the more poignant scenes.
In one memorable scene, White House staffer Lewis Rothschild (played by Michael J. Fox) admonishes the president, Andrew Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas), “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.” In real life, it’s arguable that President Obama inherited the biggest mess ever faced by an incoming president, save for Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He inherited a sinking ship of state, plugged its holes, bailed it out, and has it chugging forward slowly. However, his Republican opponents and certain ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats have spent this past year feeding the people sand and the president has been much too reticent to respond with the leadership needed to counter their pernicious influence. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the debate over health care, in which the president, striving to embody a bipartisan spirit, has mostly compromised only with himself.
In the climax of An American President, Andrew Shepherd, having seemingly lost the woman of his dreams, recognizes that, somewhere along the way, he had also lost his nerve. He chooses to change course and return to his original, courageous vision—no compromises, because he remembers that he was morally right in the first place. At a hastily-called news conference, President Shepherd declares, “Being President of this country is entirely about character. … We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.” After announcing that he intends to send two bills to Congress, while withdrawing watered-down measures, fashioned to appease his opponents rather than do what is needed, he promises, “I will go door to door if I have to, but I’m gonna convince Americans that I’m right …” Well, it’s time for the real-life president to do the same. President Obama needs to remember and reclaim the passionate vision that carried him to the White House in the first place and present to Congress his original plan for health care reform. Let Senators bellow and moan all they will, it’s time for the president to offer decisive leadership. He must know that his original vision for health care reform is far superior to the parody of reform that’s brewing in Congress. If Americans have been nibbling on sand for much of the past year, then the president needs to go door to door, or at least state to state, to convince them that his vision for reform was right in the first place. Mr. President, tell Congress that you expect them to pass a comprehensive health care reform bill, complete with a public option, or that they will be ones to answer to the voters for the failure to deliver universal health care.
Many people have suggested that President Obama is the most intelligent and eloquent president in a generation, perhaps longer. I agree. I have a feeling that he’s also one of the most decent men ever to occupy the Oval Office. That’s why I’m pretty confident he’d get the message of An American President—and understand that pulling out all the stops to win universal health insurance for Americans, even if he fails, will be the one act that convinces Americans that their confidence in him a year ago today was well placed.