By Robert A. Vella

On Thursday, Chris Matthews interviewed President Obama at American University for a little more than forty minutes.  Presumably, the President wanted to reach out to younger people and progressives who have lost some support for him over the past few months due to the botched Affordable Care Act roll-out, the NSA surveillance revelations, and other governmental matters.  As a Baby Boomer, I can’t speak for the Millennial generation;  however, I can speak for many of my fellow progressives who weren’t all that impressed by the content of the interview.

My initial reaction confirmed a growing suspicion that this President is uncomfortable as a political leader.  He spoke in vague generalities about very specific and eminently critical issues.  He seemed overly cautious about what he would say and how he would say it.  The tentative Barack Obama of late 2013 is but a shadow of the bold candidate who fearlessly captured the heart of a nation in 2008.  But more importantly, the President utterly failed to directly address the fundamental problems facing America in the 21st century.  The perception – at least from this observer – is that he is a purveyor of the status quo, an establishment loyalist who offers change on the fringes as a form of appeasement.

This is not a critique of Obama’s heart and soul (only he, his family, and his closest friends know that), but rather an objective assessment of his presidential performance to date.  Let’s parse out the interview in more detail.

Matthews brought up the subject of Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation.  The President acknowledged and shared the concern about economic inequality, although he commented primarily on the Pope as a person instead of focusing on what Francis had substantively wrote about – namely, the “new tyranny” of unfettered capitalism, the “idolatry of money,” and a stunning rebuke of “trickle-down” conservative ideology.  By ignoring the essence of Pope Francis’ message, Obama effectually trivialized it in the minds of populists who desired some sort of affirmation.

The host also asked the President about the precipitous decline of institutional trust in America.  Surveys have shown time and again this public sentiment is not just directed towards government, but towards business and religious institutions as well.  People correctly see widespread corruption throughout the largest organizations of society.  Yet, Obama responded defensively as if the question pertained only to his administration.  He spoke of the political obstructionism by the Republican right-wing and partially blamed “the media,” but was apparently oblivious to the pervasive problem of institutional corruption.  Furthermore, he flippantly suggested that political polarization was somehow the norm in American history and that one-party rule was the only way to solve it.  Chris Matthews did not press the President on the matter even though his new book (Tip and the Gipper:  When Politics Worked) clearly demonstrated the opposite view.

The terribly serious issues of money in politics, rampant corporatism, Wall Street reform, global trade (e.g. the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership deal), and international relations, were not discussed to my recollection.  The President’s remarks on NSA surveillance and spying operations were dismissively cavalier and valueless in my opinion.  On GOP voter suppression efforts which pose an existential threat to democracy and equality, Obama said the Department of Justice was doing everything legally possible in response;  however, a sense of urgency was obviously lacking in his answer.

The last part of the interview was much more revealing.  Mr. Obama was quite candid about the weight of responsibility of the presidency and how it had affected him.  His admission about not being able to achieve everything he had hoped for, and that he was just another president in a long line of presidents effecting change, was conspicuously uninspiring I must say.  Howard Fineman and David Corn had great commentary on this interview segment afterwards.

On a final note, the President threw a couple of barbs at progressive journalism during the first part of the interview and singled out MSNBC in particular.  These echoed similar jabs at progressives Obama has made since he moved into the White House.  I’m not sure what he had expected.  Progressives are not lemmings who blindly follow their leader into the unknown.  We have legitimate concerns which should be heard by our political representatives.  When they are not heard, we take notice.  In 2008, we voted for Barack Obama.  In 2012, we voted against Mitt Romney.  The difference between those two elections contains a real and untold story.

Further reading:

Obama reaches out to next generation to complete his legacy

Obama woos cautious college students toward Obamacare