Beyond The Benefit Of The Doubt

My family knows well that the Rob Reiner/Aaron Sorkin film “The American President” is one of my all-time favorites. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve watched it, and during particularly difficult times in this country, notably after the events of 9/11, it served as a source of comfort.

As he would later do so magnificently in “The West Wing,” Sorkin painted a picture of politicians and government who were able to transcend the innumerable temptations to compromise principles for expediency, and actually even reach greatness.

There is a pivotal scene in “The American President” when the character played by Annette Benning, a lobbyist for the environmental movement who has become the President’s lover, is so disillusioned by his failure to honor a principled commitment he had made to her that she decides to leave him. He urges her to stay, but she tells him that her leaving is the least of his problems. “You just lost my vote,” she says. She’s so disgusted that the break-up of the romance is secondary to her utter loss of faith in him.

Since his campaign for the presidency, I have been a strong supporter of President Barack Obama, bucking some very powerful voices in the Jewish community who have seen him as an enemy of Israel. I never believed that and I still don’t, and I think it was, and is, a patently unfair accusation. I also believe that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, under the sway of the Tea Party and political leaders more concerned with keeping their prestigious positions than actually showing some leadership, has all but made it impossible for the President to govern. When your operating philosophy is straight out of Groucho Marx’s “whatever it is, I’m against it,” one needs to show more than a little understanding for an administration that has not been able to accomplish all that much.

I get that. I really do. And yet… I feel myself slowly but surely losing my patience with President Obama, and with his administration’s chronic inability to get in front of issues, as opposed to respond to them.

In no way can I wrap my brain around the fact that, given that the Affordable Healthcare Act was by far the most significant piece of legislation passed during the President’s first term, and it is clearly still the goal of the Republicans, Tea Party and others, to sabotage it, the Department of Health and Human Services managed to create a website that couldn’t handle the volume of inquiries from Day 1.

It’s 2013, for God’s sake! Couldn’t they have called Amazon and Google and asked them how they do it? Given the amount of time that they had, and the amount of money (yours and mine) that was spent on it, this was the best that they could do? How can HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius not be asked to resign over this? How could the president and his advisors not have been sufficiently involved in this process to know that the site wasn’t ready to launch? How is that possible? I find it completely baffling, not to mention embarrassing.

If that were the only example of ineptitude, it would be enough to cause lingering feelings of doubt as to whether or not Team Obama was leading effectively. But it’s not the only example, not by a long shot.

Are we bombing Syria or are we not? Does a “red line” mean anything in American foreign policy, or does it not? Does (allegedly) dismantling chemical weapons manufacturing facilities in Syria constitute an adequate response for a war crime by anyone’s definition? Where is the punishment? And while we’re at it, how badly did Vladimir Putin outmaneuver our President on the Syria question?

And speaking of Putin and the President, how are we to understand the information in the documents leaked by Edward Snowden?

Did the President know that the NSA was wiretapping the personal conversations of foreign heads of state, or not? And if not, why not? I completely believe that every nation that is able to spies on every other nation, and to pretend that that is not the case is disingenuous at best. But the personal phone calls of the heads of state of our allies? Has our government given up on all pretenses of the right to privacy in the quest for greater security? And if the NSA is tapping Angela Merkel’s phone, you have to believe that yours and mine count for absolutely nothing. I want to be secure as much as the next person, particularly as a New Yorker. We who live here are living with a gigantic bulls-eye on our city. But it’s hard not to feel that so many lines have already been crossed that soon there will be no lines left. What about it, Mr. President?

It is a bad day indeed for America when we are perceived by the rest of the world as a paper tiger, and our threats and promises have no teeth to them. It doesn’t take long for the less savory nation-states and other players up to no good to get the message that America is not to be feared– or, for that matter, trusted. We are dangerously close to that situation with our foreign policy, and our most important domestic policy can’t get its very expensive website to work. Oh happy day…

How wonderful it would be if Aaron Sorkin could write a different script for us and for our country! We could all use a healthy dose of unreality right about now– something that would inspire us, and enable us to believe in the America that represents the best of so many things, in so many different ways. Mr. President… you can’t “lose my vote,” because you can’t run again. But you can redeem your presidency– and my faith in it– by taking charge of it more forcefully, and leading us out of this mess.

Americans, myself very much included, are waiting.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.