Though I didn’t vote for President Obama I was unusually happy for his election. To me it said many good things about America.

While his speaking ability was possibly the best since Ronald Reagan (whose speaking ability was the best since John F. Kennedy), I thought his small business tax policy, as he explained it to Sam Wurzelbacher (a.k.a Joe the Plumber), was appalling.

I didn’t much like his notions on a lot of other issues either, starting with questions over abortion, but to be honest, I really wanted a reason to for vote for him. I never found it.

It was Mr. Obama’s early October 2008 encounter with Wurzelbacher that decided the question for me. Candidate Obama was condescending to poor little Joe. The guy just couldn’t comprehend how Obama’s proposal to raise his tax rate from 36 percent to 39 percent was going to be of any help to him and his small plumbing business.

The thing was, while the candidate didn’t want to “punish” Joe’s success, Joe just wasn’t thinking about “everybody who is behind [him], that they’ve got a chance at success, too.” Besides, Candidate Obama pointed out, “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

If you want to stimulate small business growth there must be a dozen ways of doing it that don’t involve taking Joe’s money. But at least this way Joe wouldn’t forget to think of everyone behind him.

That decided the question of whom I should vote for. So I voted for . . . dang, what was his name?

I grew up in an America where in my early teens one found signs reading “Whites Only” and “Colored Only.” At seventeen, I traveled through the South on a Boy Scout excursion to Florida. Two in our company were black; the Public Accommodations Act was not yet law. Our friends could not enter restaurants with us, nor use the same toilets and water fountains as the rest of us. I saw those signs—Whites, Colored—at a bus stop for the first time outside of photographs, standing next to black friends. I remember feeling angry, ashamed, and a little humiliated all at once.

Long before that trip I was a retirement home volunteer, working on yet another Scout badge, and I met a black lady, the cook. I forget what we were talking about one afternoon but I remember using “colored people.” She laughed and brought me up short. “Colored people? What color,” holding her hand out, “do you think this is?” I was confused; of course she was colored. I think I said, tentatively, chocolate. “Now, you hold out your hand and tell me what color it is.” White, I thought. “You’re telling me white ain’t a color?”

These are things that shaped part of my life while I was growing up.

What happened then in the election of President Obama was to me little short of wonderfully staggering. Within the brief space of 143 years from the end of slavery, a true blink of the eye even for a nation still so young, a black man came to occupy the country’s highest office. It wasn’t him I was thrilled with; it was what the nation, my country, had done in electing him. I yet feel that.

Nonetheless, I cannot wait until this term ends. Rarely have I been so disappointed in a president. President Nixon is a benchmark in presidential disappointments, but in my mind Mr. Obama seems to be gaining on it.

I have thought about it, puzzled over it, and I really can’t come up with one all-purpose word to describe this president. A lot of words are out there: disengaged, clueless, sloppy, and the like, all mostly related to the rollout of the health care web site. But even here, I was willing to give his singular legislative achievement a fair shot. (The sign-up hasn’t worked well for my family, but that is another story.) I think in concept I might have even given the Affordable Care Act better marks had it contained a religious exemption.

But, ACA aside, I have a word now. He’s a selfie.

It came to me watching the prime minister of Denmark, the president of the United States, and the prime minister of Great Britain goof around with cell phones at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. All three of them were severely criticized for flippant behavior. Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark, offered the most plausible explanation (plausible considering who was seated to her left): “I just thought it was a bit fun. Maybe it also shows that when we meet heads of state and government, we too are just people who have fun.” Call it the Cyndi Lauper defense for heads of state.

I don’t mind Mr. Obama having fun. There’s a place for it almost anywhere—except at a memorial service. It was tacky, and clueless and sloppy, a display of thoughtless silliness during solemn celebration—a selfie moment.

Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church , assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary. His book Speaking of the Dead is nearing completion. His previous articles can be found here .

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Articles by Russell E. Saltzman

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