(RNS) Five men who know what it means to be president of the United States shared a stage in University Park, Texas. Then the incumbent among them flew to Waco, to mourn 11 first-responders, killed in a fertilizer plant explosion in the small town of West, Texas.
All presidents try to rewrite history to burnish their brief place in it. And in his new presidential library, George W. Bush will have his turn.
Barack Obama’s legacy is still a work in progress, though even sympathetic commentators are seeing him now, in his fifth year, as too slow to act, too cerebral to brawl, and too little respected by his political enemies.
In one role, however, Obama has excelled: “Mourner in Chief” — not one of his constitutional duties but oddly important.
In the past several months, he has shown up — on the ground, in person, able to empathize and to grieve in coastal towns ravaged by Hurricane Sandy; in a Connecticut town ravaged by a lone gunman; in a proud city driven to eerie silence by two bombers; and now a Texas town where firefighters were killed doing their job.
As Mourner in Chief, Obama has left enduring images. While a smug speaker of the House chortles over out-maneuvering the president on favors to the rich, Obama walks into the crowds in New Jersey and looks shattered homeowners in the eye.
He does so again in Newtown, Conn., in Boston, and in Waco — wiping tears from his eyes, sharing the grief, and affirming their courage to keep on.
Such mourning won’t bring Congress into line. While citizens were mourning, Congress was catering to the powerful by smoothing out air travel delays that Congress itself caused. But in nurturing America’s soul, the contrast between ignoring citizens and sharing their pain will have impact.
Nothing in the Constitution requires a president to venture into the nation’s suffering rather than flying safely over it in a helicopter. But there is in America an implicit deal between White House and citizenry, in which presidents truly care for the American people. Not just those who give boatloads of money to politicians, but the ones who actually do the work that enables the precious 1 percent to have those boatloads.
In his own way, Obama is breaking that deal, too. He voices concern for victims of America’s bizarre socialism for the rich. But then he doesn’t get into the trenches to change it.
The searing experience of being an effective “Mourner in Chief,” might stir Obama’s appetite for political battle. I certainly hope so. The people need an advocate. Gun merchants have their strong advocate. Bankers and the super-rich have theirs. Special interests line up to grease the congressional palm.
Not so with police officers who actually keep streets safe, or firefighters who move toward danger, or military troops in harm’s way, or teachers stifled by a broken system, or families crushed by debt, or elderly citizens watching Congress steal their retirement funds, or the vast majority who live paycheck-to-paycheck while a few obscenely indulge themselves.
Americans have a surfeit of predators, but few in power who remember that we are people, we have hopes and dreams, we have sorrows, we want to do meaningful work, we want to care for our families and we want to be proud citizens.
Now that President Obama has looked the broken and courageous in the eye, I hope he will shed his reserve and become an advocate for the people.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)