President Obama:  ‘The Audacity of Birthdays’

RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., August 4, 2011 – President Obama celebrated his 50th birthday in style:  flying to Chicago on Air Force One and being welcomed by Jennifer Hudson’s obligatory reprise of Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”  Then, he attended a fund-raising concert with several thousand supporters before dining with approximately 100 major donors.  To cap off the festivities, he still found time to blame someone for something.

President Obama wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope.  The title expressed what many of us saw in him:  a fresh, new face in American politics; a tall, athletic-looking man with a supportive wife and two beautiful children; and a spirited voice of optimism.  He offered the promise of “hope and change.”  Unfortunately, his presidency has delivered “more of the same” in the form of traditional politics.  If he ever considers writing a sequel, it might well be titled, “The Audacity of Blame.”

On July 21st, this column predicted that the debt ceiling crisis would be resolved on August 2nd because traditional politics demanded it; not because of the Hill’s commitment to doing what’s best for the country … but because August 4th was the President’s 50th birthday and major fund-raisers had already been scheduled for August 3rd.  Serious money was at risk … campaign money.

The rough estimates are in and the “take” from the shindig in Chicago was approximately $3.65 million (not counting the seven other fund-raising events and 1000 or so additional organizational parties that were hosted in his honor around the country).

Now, we can’t be sure how much the President raised last year when he dined alone with Oprah Winfrey before attending birthday fund-raisers the next day (his family was vacationing in Spain), but we do know that the price of the tickets went up.  Last year’s top-end party, hosted by Chicago billionaire and real estate mogul Neil Bluhm, cost $30,400 to attend.  This year’s event tipped the scales at $35,800 for the political cognoscenti who could afford to attend.  If you do the math, that’s a 17.76% increase year-over-year. 

One explanation might be found within the regulations of the Federal Election Commission.  The FEC permits campaign donation limits to be adjusted each year by the rate of inflation.

However, that can’t be the answer since we’re officially told that we are experiencing a minimum level of inflation (assuming that you agree with the Administration’s position that the price of food, clothing, and fuel shouldn’t enter into the calculation of inflation because they’re “too volatile”).  Perhaps the increase of 17.76 percent was just a subliminal manifestation of patriotism at its finest.

However, let’s not quibble over price.  After all, what’s $35,800 to the average middle-class American?  So, let’s delve into the celebration itself.

In the spirit of the evening and before the private part of the gala began, President Obama took the opportunity to rally his minions.  “I hope we can avoid another self-inflicted wound like we just saw over the last couple of weeks.  Because we don’t have time to play these partisan games.  We’ve got too much work to do … It is going to continue to be challenging every step of the way,” the President said.

It’s interesting that he is distancing himself from the debt ceiling debacle as if he didn’t play a role … or as if it didn’t constitute “work” just because it wasn’t directly related to campaigning.  Some might argue that the President failed to demonstrate appropriate leadership when he chose to wait until the last moment to engage Congress on the potentially cataclysmic problem of which everyone had been aware for more than a year.  Then again, any earlier engagement might have interfered with the 36 prior fund-raising events he attended in recent months.  As it was, he had to cancel planned appearances at about a half-dozen fund-raising events just over the three weeks that he chose to become personally involved in resolving the issue.

It is also interesting to note that, while they remain his primary target, President Obama is no longer restricting his reprimands to the Republican Party and its splintered TEA Party associates.  He has subtly begun to allude to the more radical elements of his own Party when he comments about partisan politics.  The question remains as to whether the more extreme faction of the Democratic Party will tolerate his thinly veiled version of a public rebuke.

It is one thing for the President to position the entire conservative movement as wicked and obstinate, but it is far more tenuous for him to throw his major fund-raising constituency under the bus.  Will those members of his base accept this tactic as a necessary evil that will allow him to retain support among moderates, or will they rebel against his self-serving abandonment of their position?  Only time will tell.

In one of the more intellectually amusing moments of the evening, President Obama shared his thinking with respect to the issue of taxes.  “What they want to know is our campaign stands for a fair, just approach to the tax code that says everybody has to chip in.  And it’s not right if a hedge fund manager is being taxed at a lower rate than his or her secretary. That’s a values issue,” the President said … with a straight face… to a room full of hedge fund managers and others of similar wealth.

He also probably didn’t mean to insinuate that “everybody has to chip in.”  Otherwise, the 47 percent of American households that presently do not pay taxes might be in for a rude awakening.  It almost certainly was just a figure of speech.

During the private dinner that followed the concert, President Obama went on to say, “I think this episode was just a severe example of what’s been going on for quite some time and it’s part of what led me to run for President.  It’s part of the reason why, hopefully, all of you are here tonight, because you recognize we still got some more work to do.”  Accordingly, why haven’t we seen more of the “change” we were promised?  Why is it still “business as usual” in Washington, D.C.?

Where is the transparency we were promised?  Where is the accountability?  Where is the bipartisan accord?

Of course, it’s difficult to establish the latter when “blame” seems to be the central premise of the current Administration.

For the first two years, the failed Bush Administration was blamed for virtually everything (many times, deservingly so).  However, this strategy disregarded the fact that both the House and the Senate were Democratically-controlled during the final two years of President Bush’s second term (the 110th Congress) and that both chambers continued to be ruled by an overwhelming Democratic majority during President Obama’s first two years (the 111th Congress).  Could there be some joint culpability involved in our nation’s challenges or should we simply ignore the obvious?

Luckily, just as Bush-bashing was beginning to lose steam, the Democratic Party lost control of the House.  This allowed the President to shift the blame to House Republicans and their cohorts in crime, the TEA Party.  Again, just ignore the fact that the Democratically-controlled Senate has effectively become a legislative black hole into which almost everything disappears … usually without debate.  There is no such thing as joint liability on the Hill.

The same proverbial coat of Teflon should be applied to the President.  Of course, if he really wants to be the “adult in the room,” he needs to accept responsibility and demonstrate more leadership.  In that regard, let’s review an excerpt from The National Platform of Common Sense that addresses leadership.

“In keeping with the current direction of our country and out of respect for the amount of debt we owe to China, I thought I would quote Lao Tse (in Tao Te Ching):

“‘The superior leader gets things done with very little motion.  He imparts instruction not through many words but through a few deeds.  He keeps informed about everything but interferes hardly at all.  He is a catalyst, and though things would not get done well if he weren’t there when they succeed he takes no credit.  And because he takes no credit, credit never leaves him.’

“All kidding aside, that’s a pretty profound description of leadership and one from which the “leaders” in our Executive and Legislative Branches would greatly benefit if they took heed.  Compare and contrast that to their more predominant tendencies toward chest-thumping, credit-stealing, blame-shirking, and behavior-shifting.  Am I the only one who’s troubled by the “star” status that appears to be so desperately sought by our “leaders?”

“I’d be more comfortable calling most of the members of the Executive and Legislative Branches of our government “celebrities” rather than “leaders.”  I think that would help the general public see them more clearly.  After all, while we may misguidedly idolize “celebrities” for the roles or games they might play, we intuitively recognize that their importance is somewhat in­flated and that their contribution to the world is one of entertainment.”

Think about that.  Leadership isn’t about taking credit.  It also isn’t about assigning blame.  It’s about taking responsibility and taking action.  There isn’t a “celebrity” status associated with it.

Having worked primarily in the world of corporate turnarounds for 30 years, there was one recurring theme:  when you agreed to take over, all of the problems became yours. 

You needed to demonstrate leadership by assuming responsibility for the facts as they existed when you took control.  It did not matter how those circumstances came into effect or who contributed to their creation.  It only mattered that you provided the leadership necessary to recover from the past and to establish an environment that fostered the opportunity for a better future.

Leadership isn’t about “winning;” it isn’t about taking credit, and it isn’t about raising money.  It’s about getting the job done.  May the President have success in that regard during the remainder of his term, and may “the audacity of blame” fade away as quickly as “the audacity of hope” apparently did.

(Read: The Debt Ceiling War: Cut, Cap, Balance vs. Cut, Tax, Spend to learn the details about The Common Sense Czar’s accurate prediction of the resolution of the debt ceiling crisis.)


T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.


This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, The Common Sense Czar, in the Communities Section of The Washington Times.