November 23, 2009 | 8:19 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
For the first time in his presidency Barack Obama has, according to a Gallup poll, fallen below a fifty percent approval rating. It’s not hard to see why. No, it’s not because he’s spending too much money. There seem to be many Americans who want him to boost social programs. Less so is it because people perceive him as accomplishing little because if he pulls off health care reform that is a big thing indeed. No, the principal reason Obama, who became President by electrifying the electorate, has fallen to earth is that he has become boring. Humdrum. Can anyone recall any important line the President has uttered since assuming office or a single dazzling speech?
And lest we make the mistake of believing the President has become boring because his speeches are not up to par, let me be clear that I think the boredom is only partially related to failure to excite with inspired oratory.
Rather, the twin factors behind the President’s monotony are these: ubiquitousness and perfection.
This president does not seem to understand the power of mystery. At any given time, he is in China, Japan, Egypt, in the Rose Garden, at the UN, on your television screen, and on your radio. He does not believe in holding back. The net result has been to make him all-too available and utterly ordinary. The same is true of his propensity to prostrate himself – quite literally – in front of world leaders like the Saudi King and the Japanese Emperor. The issue is not that he belittles his office but that he comes across as a supplicant. What is about our president that propels him to seek others’ approval at every turn? And why can he not pace himself so that something of himself is left in reserve so that the people later want more?
Much more importantly, however, the President has become boring because he is way too perfect.
Last week I convened the first International Conference on Jewish Values. It featured most of Judaism’s foremost living personalities, including Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Michael Steinhardt, Joseph Telushkin, Richard Joel, Alan Dershowitz, and Dennis Prager (full video of the entire conference is available at Shmuley.com). The last, and most important, of the seven universal Jewish values we focused on was struggle.
Where most of the world believes in perfection, Jews believe in struggle. Jesus was perfect, as was Muhammad. Any insinuation as to Jesus even getting lonely and requiring the love of a woman, as Dan Brown suggested in The Da Vinci Code, would greatly offend the sensibilities of Christian brothers and sisters. And an insinuation that Muhamad had any faults – even if the suggestion is made in a humorous cartoon – can and has let to riots in cities around the world.
But it’s not just religions that make the mistake of promoting perfection. I remember as a young American boy being taught that George Washington never told a lie and that Abraham Lincoln walked miles to return a single penny.
But the Jewish Bible has not a single perfect person. All are flawed. Abraham demonstrates a lack of faith, Jacob favors a child, and Moses often complains and then refuses to perfectly carry out G-d’s instructions for which he is denied entry into the promised land. David, the father of the Messiah, is so riddled with flaws that he must live through the open rebellion of his beloved Absalom. So if these people were so imperfect, why do we look up to them as heroes?
The answer, of course, is that Judaism has no time for perfection. Perfect people are monolithic, predictable, often judgmental, and, worst of all, boring. That’s the main reason why Americans did not develop a populist passion for books about the founding fathers until about twenty years ago when authors finally starting writing the truth about how complex and flawed these men who had been sold to us as statues actually were. Joseph Ellis wrote American Sphinx and shared with us, in vivid detail, the fact of Jefferson’s slaveholding and his sexual relationship with Sally Hemmings. In His Excellency Ellis reveals George Washington’s uncompromising ambition for wealth and social status. And in Lincoln’s Melancholy Joshua Wolf Shenk reveals the great president as a man so suicidal that his friends often feared leaving him unattended.
So why do we revere these men if they were less than perfect? Because the truly righteous man is not he who never sins but rather he who, amid a predilection to narcissism and selfishness, battles his nature to live a virtuous life. The truly great man is not he who slays dragons but he who battles his inner demons, he who struggles with himself to improve and ennoble his character
Israel means ‘he who wrestles with G-d.’ It was the name of Jacob who wrestled with a brother who sought to kill him and a father-in-law who sought to enslave him. Most of all, he wrestled with an angel, a symbol of his earthly and G-dly nature locked in battle for ascendancy.
I would personally choose the man who has wrestled and struggled any day over the trust-fund baby who has never struggled. Those whom have been given gifts often lack empathy and risk becoming conventional and uni-dimensional.
Which brings us back to Barack Obama, a man was raised without a father who had to wrestle with major challenges in order to succeed. So why does he insist on coming across as perfect? Why will he not leave the teleprompter and give an off-the-cuff speech where he can showcase his humanity? Why does he take such long pauses in responding to all questions to ensure that only perfection stems from his lips? And why is everything in this White House a perfectly calibrated photo-op?
Sure, during the campaign America may have wanted a Messiah figure. They saw messy wars and a collapsing economy and wanted a savior. But as President they want someone real, someone who struggles like them.
Even in the worst moments of the Monica Lewinsky scandal President Clinton’s poll numbers never dipped below fifty percent. Most Americans saw a flawed man and identified with his lack of perfection.
Barack Obama is far more disciplined for such unfortunate choices and I respect him for it. But don’t be afraid to show us Mr. President that, as in the title of George Stephanopoulos’ book about President Clinton, that you also are All Too Human.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, is author most recently of ‘The Blessing of Enough’ and ‘The Michael Jackson Tapes.’ www.shmuley.com.
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