James Werrell

January 23, 2009

Obama has a way of steering clear of trouble

Barack Obama has demonstrated an uncanny aptitude for putting the lid on potential trouble and keeping it from blowing up in his face.

Take, for example, the flubbed oath of office at Tuesday's inauguration. It appeared that Chief Justice John Roberts, who was administering the oath, was responsible. He put the word "faithfully" in the wrong place, and Obama, after pausing for a second, repeated the mistake.

It was no big deal. Historians immediately recounted how other presidents and vice presidents had fouled up the oath. They also noted that Obama became the 44th president at noon Tuesday, as mandated by the Constitution, with or without the oath.

But Obama and his legal advisers must have seen storm clouds. The right-wing bloviators wasted no time in casting doubts on the legitimacy of Obama's presidency because of the jumbled oath. Chris Wallace of Fox News said after the inauguration that he wasn't sure Obama was actually our president.

Solution? Invite the chief justice over to the White House for a do-over. Roberts, decked out in his official black robes, readministered the oath -- correctly this time -- in front of a few reporters, and that was that. It took 25 seconds. Problem solved.

We shouldn't read too much into the incident. White House counsel Greg Craig admitted after the oath was readministered that they had acted "out of an abundance of caution."

But Obama might have responded differently. He might have brushed off the flubbed oath as irrelevant. The issue might have festered, and bloggers might have spent the next four years debating whether Obama actually was entitled to sit in the Oval Office.

Instead, the problem was nullified before it had a chance to morph into something bigger.

During a largely flawless transition, Obama ran into a little trouble over his selection of conservative pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. Warren had invited Obama to a forum at his Saddleback Church during the campaign; the two men got along, and Obama decided to repay the favor.

But Warren has been an outspoken opponent of gay marriage and a supporter of Proposition 8 in California, which revoked the right of gay couples to legally marry in the state. He also has equated homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia.

Gays and lesbians, who had supported Obama in large numbers and who were still smarting from the passage of Proposition 8, understandably took issue with the choice of Warren for such a prominent role in the inauguration.

Obama could have dug in his heels and hoped the storm would pass. Instead, he invited V. Eugene Robinson, the openly gay New Hampshire Episcopal bishop and early Obama supporter, to deliver the invocation at the beginning of Sunday's inaugural concert.

Both Obama and Robinson denied that this had anything to do with mollifying gay supporters, but that was the result nonetheless. (Unfortunately, HBO did not include Robinson's prayer in the initial broadcast of the concert. But the prayer was added in an "updated" version on Wednesday.)

Perhaps the most significant instance of Obama's skill at defusing trouble was his handling of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, which could have derailed his campaign. When tapes of Wright sermons denouncing America surfaced, Obama was criticized for his 20-year membership in Wright's congregation.

Solution? Offer up a thoughtful and thought-provoking speech on the issue of race in America. The speech not only brought almost universal praise but also silenced much of the criticism about Obama's association with Wright.

That wasn't the end of it. Wright continued to stir the waters during subsequent public appearances, and Obama said enough was enough, and left the church.

But there is no doubt that the speech he gave in Philadelphia saved his campaign. Challenging critics with a penetrating conversation about race is not what one would anticipate from an ordinary politician, and it helped demonstrate Obama was far from ordinary.

Being able to anticipate fallout and do something about it looks easy in hindsight. But consider all the politicians who have ended up kicking themselves for failing to react in time. Sen. John Kerry and his run-in with the swift-boaters comes to mind.

By now, we should be realizing that Obama is smart, nimble and quick. He also seems to understand that the best way to deflect trouble is to be open, honest and forthright.

Avoiding trouble is an excellent talent for a president to have. Especially if he can make it look easy.

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