“The amount of disrespect being shown to Barack Obama is beyond belief,” offers Lenny Kates, a retired social worker from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who is countering the negativity with a message of his own. Once a week, Kates spends his day in the middle of a busy traffic circle in the center of his hometown, holding a sign that reads: “Be Grateful for President Obama.” It’s a simple, poignant message, one designed to make people think twice about reflexively blaming the president for the myriad problems the country is facing.
According to the 69-year-old Kates, he conceived the message nine weeks ago after learning that a group of Tea Partiers were planning to hold a rally in Pittsfield on Tax Day. “I was thinking that the Tea Partiers were going to be out there not constructively criticizing but negatively criticizing and bullying Obama,” he says, beginning to explain his rationale. “I had been increasingly upset with people attacking him, and found myself thinking that Americans aren’t grateful for the effort he’s been putting forth. The word ‘grateful’ made sense to me. It’s an empathic, non-toxic word, but at the same time it reflects my worries about the country and my concern about the stress and strain the president may be under.”
True to his intentions, Kates unveiled his message on April 15, spending three hours standing adjacent to a small gathering of Tea Partiers. He recalls being anxious as to how he’d be received by the assembled protestors, one of whom displayed an ‘Obama as Hitler’ sign. “I got hardly any direct response,” begins Kates. “People [from the Tea Party] looked at me and rolled their eyes. And two individuals came over and asked if I was being ironic,” he says matter-of-factly.
In contrast, the motorists and pedestrians who passed often evinced favorable reactions, responding with a wave, thumbs up, or honk of their horn. “There were a few individuals who cursed at me or yelled ‘Obama sucks,’” he reports, the plus-minus ratio no doubt influenced by the fact that Pittsfield is located in one of the bluest counties in Massachusetts (and the country) based on voting records this past decade.
While the Tea Partiers haven’t been back, Kates has continued his one-man vigil, recently redoubling his efforts by standing outside Town Hall in nearby Great Barrington, Massachusetts. And despite the fact that a Tea Party served as his inspiration, Kates’ message is primarily aimed at liberals and centrists, who, he says, ought to be realistic about how much change Obama can deliver is just a year or two.
“Obama walked into a situation where our economy was close to totally failing,” begins Kates. “It’s tough for him to do much more than work to save the economy, and also to restore democratic ways of thinking. Don’t get caught up in talking about what you wish Obama would do,” he continues, the latter part of his statement aimed at lefties who wish Obama was considerably more liberal. “Talk about what he is doing and point out why, in the present political climate, it’s hard for him to be doing what one would wish he’d do.”
As for centrists who are considering voting for conservatives in the 2010 midterm elections, Kates says, “Don’t forget that the problems we’re facing—what happened to our economy and our standing in the world—were caused by Republicans, the people who were in charge for the prior eight years. It doesn’t make sense to blame the president and everybody in Washington, because the problems were caused beforehand. We can’t go back to the former ways of handling the economy,” he emphasizes.
Still, it’s the way the far-right treats Obama that most motivates Kates to work to raise consciousness. “It’s classic bullying behavior,” he begins, noting that the right-wing media and its devotees carry on as if Obama is hostile or belligerent. “But he’s not hostile. Quite the contrary. He’s shifted from the authoritarian leanings of the Bush Administration to a more expansive, empathic approach, yet some people behave as if they are frightened of him,” concludes Kates. He believes it’s the name-calling and bullying of Obama that makes the president’s supporters hesitant to publicly endorse him, for fear they’ll be bullied too.
So while Kates would be happy to have others join him on the street in Pittsfield and Great Barrington, he’s willing to continue going it alone, in hopes of getting people talking about all the things the Obama Administration has accomplished. “He’s done a lot of serious work and has been very careful not to divide the country,” opines Kates, who admits he’d prefer it if Obama were more critical of those who smear him.
And while Kates doesn’t fear the verbal barbs of passing motorists, he does fret that Obama ultimately may throw up his hands and pass on running for re-election. “I worry that Obama won’t want to do a second term,” giving voice to a possibility that few of his supporters have stopped to consider. “I try to put myself in his place. And if people said, ‘We’re going to destroy you’—and people have said that—well, I wouldn’t want to put myself in his place.”
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