Many who voted against President Barack Obama are angry right now. Obama’s Democratic Party took a beating in the November elections, and many expected Obama to be a crippled “lame duck” for the rest of his term.
But Obama seems more energized than ever since the November “smackdown.” He has moved ahead on immigration reform, on trade with China, on releasing prisoners from Guantanamo, on rethinking the U.S. approach to Islamic State militants and, most recently, on beginning the process to normalize relations with Cuba.
He is showing a confidence in leading that the American people have not seen before from him. And Obama has promised more of the same energized leadership in the months to come.
As a teacher, I am reminded of the student who, without warning, exhibits a sudden change of attitude in class, leaving behind mediocrity and exhibiting a new level of energy and improved output. Again as a teacher, I cannot help but wonder what “clicked” for this student to cause such a positive turnaround.
Maybe the answer is that the student simply grew tired of doing the bare minimum, for trying to do just enough to pass can be exhausting. Or maybe someone — a fellow student, a professor, a coach or a parent — “lit a fire” under the student. Whatever the cause of the transformation, the student is noticeably different in class. She sits more alertly at her desk, or he takes notes or begins to contribute to class discussions. We who are teachers live for those moments.
No one has ever doubted that Obama is a bright person and must have been a bright student. He might be one of the most intelligent presidents that we have had, although my conservative friends might grind their teeth in reading that. Moreover, Obama is certainly one of the calmest presidents we have had during times of crisis, and he has faced many crises.
This calmness and patience served him well when he guided the nation through health care reform that was long overdue. Obama’s calm demeanor also showed the proper restraint at the time of the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden.
Obama’s calmness, however, can seem too laid back at times. Vladimir Putin has certainly sized up Obama as a world leader that he, Putin, can snub and even bully at times. Similarly, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives and now the Senate has treated Obama’s willingness to compromise as a sign of weakness.
Obama’s track record to this point of his second term and especially with the defeat of his fellow Democrats in November makes his recent turnaround in leadership style surprising. His new energy raises the question, “Who or what lit a fire under our president?”
Perhaps, the defeat of the Democrats in November was a wake-up call to Obama. His worst nightmare became reality — Obama is a Democratic president in a Republican-run Washington. Maybe Obama woke up the morning after the November election and said, “What do I have to lose?”
However, I am looking in a different direction to account for Obama’s new energy. I do not think Putin, Kim Jung Un or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, has inspired Obama. They are bullies, and Obama does not have it in him to play that role convincingly.
There is one world leader who I do believe has lit a fire under President Obama — Pope Francis. Once you stop laughing at the idea, consider the following. Like Obama, Pope Francis has experienced significant opposition from conservatives within his own community. And Pope Francis is a leader who believes the past, while worthy of being respected, must never overpower an openness to change.
Lest we forget, Obama ran on the campaign slogan of “Change We Can Believe In.” But it is more Pope Francis than President Obama who has exhibited an ability to envision a better world and then act to make that vision a reality. Pope Francis is, in a word, bold.
Some may conclude that the connection I am drawing between Pope Francis and the new energy in Obama is a figment of my imagination. Consider, however, the Vatican’s recent role in encouraging the Obama administration, through meetings between the representatives of Pope Francis and Secretary of State John Kerry, to normalize relations with Cuba. Consider also the opposition of this South American pope to the detaining and torturing of prisoners at Guantanamo.
What is a figment of my imagination is the following hypothetical exchange between Pope Francis and President Obama. “Of course some people will hate you, Mr. President,” Pope Francis might say. “Some may even try to impeach you. Resistance will always come from those who prefer the status quo. However, you and I know that the world is changing. The suffering millions in the world are crying out, and their voices can no longer be ignored. We must embrace change when and where it is needed.”
At that point, I imagine the pope putting his arm on Obama’s shoulder, looking him in the eye and saying, “Let us, you as president, me as pope, be remembered for this: That we were not afraid to be bold.”