As a student whose time at the University is drawing to a close this spring, I had been anxiously awaiting the announcement of the commencement speaker for this year’s graduating class. This speaker, as everyone on campus must by now be aware, was finally revealed last week to be none other than President Barack Obama. Though I was out of Ann Arbor this weekend — missing the celebratory parades and firework displays that probably took place on the Diag — I can deduce from the reaction on Facebook that my fellow students were overjoyed by the choice.
And you know what? I share their satisfaction, though with a serious caveat.
After all, it can’t be credibly denied that Obama is one of the public figures most relevant to the lives of University students, regardless of whether you love him or hate him. Unprecedented numbers of students identified with his candidacy and were inspired to vote for him. But even beyond that, for the first time in years, University students were sufficiently energized by a presidential candidate on behalf of whom they spent hours rallying, fundraising and registering others to vote all over campus.
It is also an honor for the University to feature a president of the United States as its commencement speaker for the second time in three years. (Bill Clinton addressed the class of 2007.)
Because of this and all the other reasons that make Obama an important figure for college students of the times, I agree that he is the right choice for commencement speaker and I look forward to his speech. But I must take issue with the Daily’s over-the-top editorial about just how perfect Obama is (Big man at the Big House, 02/12/10). Particularly, it demonstrates the hollowness of pro-Obama fanaticism to suggest that, “There is no leader better qualified to provide students with advice on leadership.”
People, and perhaps University students in particular, tend to idealize political leaders, especially high-profile ones like presidents. From Franklin Roosevelt to John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, we award mythic status to the presidents who have meant something to us. We consider their achievements the result of unimpeachable personal integrity and intellectual beliefs put into practice.
In reality, political leaders are just like anyone else. They have the same incentives and motivations as your average person: they want to be successful, powerful and popular. Whether they succeed or fail at this doesn’t make them good leaders, but rather good politicians.
Obama is certainly no exception. Take, for example, his handling of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell,” the U.S. military’s controversial policy of allowing gay people to serve in the military only if they keep their sexuality a secret. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama advocated the repeal of the policy, promising to work with the military to do so when elected. But once in office — despite having the power to instantly end enforcement of the policy, if not the policy itself — Obama did nothing. Only last month, after a full year of largely ignoring the issue, did the president take any action.
Of course, the action he took is unlikely to lead to a change anytime soon. In his State of the Union address on Jan. 27, Obama announced that he would work with Congress to repeal the ban. If he cared enough about ending discrimination in the military though, Obama could simply instruct the military not to enforce it. Then, once it became clear that openly gay people who serve in the military aren’t a detriment to the armed forces, it would be time for Congress to act. But certainly he must know that leaving it up to Congress (which has struggled with health care reform since the middle of summer) is the best way to ensure inaction on any issue.
Obama’s motivation for placing this policy’s reform in the hands of Congress is no mystery: he doesn’t want to risk a backlash against him or his party with a national election coming up next year. That doesn’t sound like such a perfect leader to me.
So, class of 2010, please continue the celebratory festivities. If I’m pelted by confetti and heart-shaped Obama candies when I enter the Diag, I won’t be complaining. But part of graduating from college means becoming more realistic about the way government works and what political leaders are like. Let’s keep that in mind.
Robert Soave was the Daily’s editorial page editor in 2009. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.