They came from humble backgrounds. Raised in working class households by single mothers, each displayed precocious gifts early on and then rose meteorically to fame and power. Both burst onto the national scene in 2004, and in the years that followed, very little went wrong. Beloved by the nation like few others in their arenas, they both seemed like not only the most talented guy in the room, but also the most likable. Even among their peers, there seemed little resentment of these men's outsized gifts. Yes, they were blessed with extraordinary talents, but they were so at ease with themselves, so comfortable in their own skin, and so damn cool that there was no begrudging their abilities. But, there comes a point when charisma and cool only take you so far. Barack Obama may still be the smartest guy in government and Lebron James is probably still the best basketball player on the planet, but 2010 has proven both of them feckless and lacking in gumption and conviction.
2010 was Lebron's do or die year in Cleveland. The final year of his contract, the year to realize his vast potential and win a championship after four straight runs deep into the playoffs. But Lebron ran into the Boston Celtics, a team with talent and experience. Most of all, Lebron ran into a team that was tougher than he was. After a dazzling game three, Lebron played an atrocious game five against the Celtics in which he went 3-14 and had his effort and assertiveness questioned by the media. Then, in the decisive game six, Lebron openly quit, throwing in the towel while trailing with a minute left. After the season Lebron held his team and his city hostage before announcing in a national infomercial for himself that he was leaving Cleveland to play in Miami with a prepackaged team of his superstar friends.
Lebron has all the prerequisites of an all time superstar except for the guts. He wants, and brazenly predicts, championships, but he wants it to be easy. This damning parody rings so true that Michael Jordan had to publicly deny his participation. Lebron left because he didn't have the guts or the desire to win on a team that had been built around him. Because joining something is always easier than building something.
"Take a tally, look at what I promised during the campaign. There's not a single thing that I have said that I would do that I have not done or tried to do." So proclaimed an abnormally feisty Barack Obama in his Tuesday press conference. The problem with his strong statement is the giant caveat at the end--"or tried to do." Tried isn't good enough when you're swept into office with 65% approval ratings, the largest majority in the House in 14 years, and the largest majority in the Senate in 30 years. "Tried" especially isn't good enough when your effort seems to wax and wane like that of Lebron in the Celtics series. Yes, Obama worked hard to get a health care bill passed, but he didn't work too hard to get a good health care bill passed. He threw aside the idea of a public option as soon as it was politically expedient. To this day, the country doesn't even know what the President would have liked in an ideal health care bill, because he never said what he wanted.
Look at the calamities of the Bush Presidency that Obama campaigned against, and has "tried" to fix, to no avail: Guantanamo is still open; the Iraq war is ostensibly over, but over 50,000 troops remain; he doubled-down on the war in Afghanistan and we're entering our tenth year there with no end in sight; Don't Ask Don't Tell remains official military policy; no climate change bill has passed; no immigration bill has passed; the START Treaty has not passed; and the Bush tax cuts have been extended. On issue after issue, over and over again, Republicans challenge the President to a game of chicken, and he continues to back down. He continues to talk of bipartisanship and working together with barely an iota of reciprocation from the other side. One sided compromise isn't compromise, it's concession.
Both Lebron and Obama have huge accomplishments that ultimately ring hollow. Lebron has won a scoring title, two MVP awards, has been all-NBA six times and an all-star seven times, and probably has the best seven year stretch ever to begin a career. But all of that is now overshadowed because, when it mattered most, he caved. His team quit and lost, and he hightailed it out of town. Obama passed huge, sweeping legislation: a financial stimulus, health care, and financial regulation, but all of it in drastically reduced scope from what had been hoped for and needed. Even with control of Congress, he continues to cave to the Republican minority. He continues Bush era policies that he campaigned against because he can't find the gumption and wherewithal to beat 41 Republican Senators.
Now, both Obama and Lebron must look back on their squandered opportunities. Obama had huge governing majorities, sky high approval ratings, and a wealth of political capital. All of that is now gone. Lebron had the highest "Q rating" that any athlete has ever had. He was the most popular basketball player in the world. He played for his hometown team in a city that revered him, with a roster composed entirely to suit his strengths. All of that is now gone.
And now we're left with both Obama and Lebron making futile, misguided peace offerings to those who despise them. Obama entered his summit with Republican leadership with an olive branch: a pay freeze for federal workers. Predictably, the Republicans made no such gesture in return, and the President was left with one less card in his negotiating hand. After Lebron's vitriolic return to Cleveland, Daniel "Boobie" Gibson expressed displeasure with some of Lebron's antics. Lebron then went out of his way to make sure everyone knows that he and Gibson are still friends. As if Cleveland cares. As if a guy known as Boobie is likely to end a friendship with a guy known as The Chosen One.
We're left in the same situation we were in before they burst on the national scene. The government continues Bush era policies and Cleveland wallows in its sporting heartbreak; moving on from the torment of The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, and Jose Mesa, to the indignity of The Decision.
Ultimately, the problem for both Lebron and Obama is not one of substance, it is one of will. Neither has lost any of the talent or skill or magnetism that made them so successful and compelling in the first place. Their problem is a disinclination to fight. Obama is no more willing to take on Congressional Republicans than Lebron was willing to continue trying to win without his superstar buddies.
Is it too late for Obama and Lebron? No. Everyone loves a winner and Obama still has an election to win and Lebron may still win multiple championships. But something has been lost. No matter how many championships Lebron wins in Miami, they won't mean as much as they would have in long suffering Cleveland, where he would have been the undisputed leader, and not one of a triumvirate of super friends. And Obama may yet win reelection, but he's lost his luster. In the rare instances when he's clear about what he wants, he doesn't show the fortitude that's required to get it. Just like Lebron, he's lost the trust of his most fervent supporters.