22 October 2009

President Obama: Most Valuable Player?

Much has already been made of the Nobel committee's decision to award its Peace Prize to President Barack Obama.  You don't need my contribution to the discussion, but I did feel it a worthy subject for the purpose of my blog.  After all, I did name it from the motto of the French Revolution, and so I would be remiss to neglect something of this caliber.

The first question on everyone's mind has been, "What exactly has President Obama done to warrant his receipt of this prestigious award?"  Some feel that it is sort of an investment in his potential to promote peace.  I myself have grappled with this for a while now, until I decided to relate it to the greatest allegory of them all: baseball.

Think of the Nobel Peace Prize as the Most Valuable Player award.  Our international popularity has always been linked directly to that of our president; such is one of the by-products of our head of government also being our head of state.  I don't think I'm telling tales out of school to say that the international community wasn't particularly fond of us during the presidency of Mr. Obama's predecessor.  "Wait a minute," you say.  "The president shouldn't be worried about winning some kind of popularity contest!"

Well, isn't that exactly what a president does?  I mean, that's the very definition of an election: a contest decided by winning over more votes than the opponent.  And, once elected, a president must constantly rally his supporters both in Congress and among the citizenry to see the advancement of his agenda.  When a president fails to convince Congress that the people are with him, his proposals die.

Recall President Reagan bringing his tax reform effort onto live television, hoisting an insurmountably thick hard copy of the federal tax code to demonstrate how out of control the system had become.  He'd already won the election handily, on the promise of restoring our economy and prestige, and yet he still had to plead with the American people to besiege their representatives in the government to ensure that everyone stayed on-board with executing his vision.  So, yes, a president not only should be concerned about winning popularity contests, it's the very essence of his job.

So, now that we've accepted that a president must win popularity contests.  Back to our baseball allegory.  Helping to regain the popularity of our great nation amongst the international community wins Mr. Obama the Rookie of the Year award.  It's a helpful contribution to the team; it's worth recognizing.  But is it MVP material?

The criteria for winning the MVP award, per the ballot (as quoted on Wikipedia):

"There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier. The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:
  1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
  2. Number of games played.
  3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
  4. Former winners are eligible.
  5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.
You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from one to ten. A tenth-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all ten places on your ballot. Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, and that includes pitchers and designated hitters. Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration."

Now, then, let's consider Mr. Obama's prospects for winning the MVP award.  Firstly, his actual value to his team is strong.  Despite the aforementioned favorable international view of the president, his domestic popularity level has fallen since his historic inauguration; but that was to be expected.  Just now, I ran a Google News search for "Obama" and here are the top related search terms that were automatically generated, in order:
  1. obama fox news
  2. obama new york
  3. obama small business
  4. obama birth certificate
  5. obama health care
  6. obama approval rating
  7. obama michael jackson
  8. obama poll
  9. obama iran
  10. obama ghana
For the uninformed, there has been a very public spat between the president and Fox News, vis-a-vis their editorial direction and whether they have passed off blatant anti-Obama opinions as "fair and balanced" news.  Yesterday, the president spoke at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser, hence the second item.  During the day, it was announced that, as part of the president's response to public frustration over the highly-paid executives who had pocketed federal bailout money for themselves, that the 2010 payout levels would be slashed by as much as 90 percent.  2009 may have been a year to exploit the chaos, but it's being made clear that President Obama intends to reign in what has been depicted as either an overt attempt at the socialization of industry or some kind of collusion between corporate thieves and their political puppets.  The stock market seems to be awakening from its slumber, and the bailout reign-in should be taken as a sign that, as Mr. Obama promised, things are looking up.

The birth certificate story has long been played-out, and I'm surprised that there are still enough people Googling it to put it in the top ten.  Health care reform has been Mr. Obama's domestic policy priority, bar none, and it is surprising that it should trail the irrelevancy of his birth certificate here in October 2009.  This has been a divisive, controversial issue contested hotly by all involved but there is one thing that cannot be denied: The President said he would tackle this out of the gate, and he has.  It hasn't gone smoothly, but then, he cautioned us that it wouldn't.

Of the remainder of the list, only the last two figure into an MVP discussion.  Then-Senator Obama declared in his 2008 campaign that he would be willing to return to diplomatic efforts with Iran.  To date, those efforts have consisted mostly of publicly traded jabs with the controversially (i.e., illegally) re-elected Iranian president Amadinejad, though a deal is apparently in the works in which Iran will begin exporting the uranium it only recently admitted to having developed.  Also, Mr. Obama has been presented with a bill that would bar companies that deal with Iran from receiving any government contracts.

Currently, many Africans are enduring the same kind of oppression against which the Iranian people railed in June: corrupt, brutal governments.  The president has been criticized for sitting on the sidelines during these conflicts, taking his relative silence to be a sign he is unconcerned by the plight of those in such circumstances.  During the aftermath of the Iranian election, the president noted that he had deliberately avoided making any remarks to avoid any suggestion of U.S. interference.

At what point should the president make a bold statement in defiance of a hostile regime, and when should he allow the internal affairs of another sovereign state to take their own course?  This is possibly the most challenging question posed to any of our chief executives and each has answered it differently.  Mr. Reagan struggled over how to handle the Middle East, certainly, but he was also tormented by how to handle the anti-communist thugs in Latin America with whom he was thrust into a tenuous alliance.  So, too, must Mr. Obama navigate these issues of international elections and human rights debates.

But, then, shouldn't the Nobel Peace Prize be a sign that he has, in fact, successfully finagled his way through at least some of those issues?  To date, he has kept mum throughout the re-election of Amadinejad and canceled a meeting with the Dalai Lama to avoid angering China.  That would seem to be the baseball equivalent of choosing not to play in the All-Star Game and then sitting out a key September game with the division title on the line.  In other words, hardly MVP behavior.

The number of games played, the Dalai Lama aside, has been great; if anything, the president has been criticized for being over-exposed in his television addresses and online presence.  He may not be setting the single-season home run record, but he's definitely a gamer.

"General character, disposition, loyalty and effort?"  Few of the president's opponents are railing against things that he hadn't already made clear he would seek to do as president, and his supporters are quick to point out that he has, in fact, turned out to be the rare politician who has seemingly worked very hard to make good on his campaign promises.  If there is one knock on Mr. Obama, it is that he is so deliberate and stoic at times that it is frustrating to not see him "in action" regularly.  President George W. Bush was clearly more like Star Trek's Captain Kirk-ish, and for fans who like to see their leaders mix it up, it can be frustrating to see a more Picard-ish Obama call a senior staff meeting to mull over his options.  (That's right, I just introduced a geek analogy into our baseball analogy of a political situation.)

To be perfectly honest, I think the fourth MVP criteria opens up the most interesting part of the entire debate, and that is that former winners are eligible.  President Bill Clinton has not won the Nobel Peace Prize, but he should certainly have been a candidate this year.  His Clinton Foundation has worked prolifically to address global issues through the cooperation between influential leaders and corporations, sidestepping the kinds of restraints that tie the hands of a government official.  And let's not forget his skillful negotiation for the release of two journalists arrested in North Korea.

I don't mean to rain on the President's parade, but while I would certainly give him the Rookie of the Year award, it is President Clinton to whom I feel the MVP award should have gone.

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