We watched Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration with great expectations. In retrospect, I’d suggest totally unrealistic though not surprising expectations. We were desperate, fatigued and disillusioned. An administration's purposeful terror mongering used to launch two questionable, costly and unfunded wars had done a number on our national psyche. Our standing in the world was at a low — yes at a low in the Bush years — and the bottom had fallen out of our over leveraged economy. With this backdrop came a tall handsome knight in shining armor, a man of soaring speech with the ability to attract and move enormous crowds. He spoke of the change for which we hungered and we invested heavily in his and its promise. And so was he (perhaps also unrealistically), “fired up and ready to go”.
The late Mayor Ed Koch would go around New York asking citizens, “How am I doing?” With more than five years logged into his presidency, its seems a good time to assess how Obama is doing, most especially for those of us who supported him in ‘08 and still do. Lets stipulate that he was dealt a terrible, almost unprecedented, hand. While that explains a lot, it’s time to stop invoking the inherited Great Recession and unresolved wars. No doubt, Obama’s performance has been impacted by the starting gate, but this far in we judge presidents for their performance not for their handicap entering the game.
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign will go down as a watershed in American politics. It raised record dollars, a good deal of it at the grassroots level, and was the first to engage the full power of technology. What was put in place then paid dividends four years later, giving the president a decisive second term win. There is a vast difference between campaigning and governing. As if to underscore that point, the organization and methods that work in building election victories don’t necessarily do as well in support of governance or policy. Obama’s organization, albeit rebranded, kept going throughout his first term and continues today, but has not been able to sufficiently mobilize positive public opinion on his most important initiatives. Beyond that, making speeches as a candidate — or making speeches in general — is far easier than executing. Speeches are solo acts where one is virtually in full control. Executing effectively requires teamwork and a large degree of consensus building, often with people of contrary views. Speeches can be pure; the product of the legislative process and even of executive action is almost always just the opposite. It is messy and often results in painful compromise.
How is Obama doing? Not as well as his campaign speeches might suggest and certainly not up to our expectations of him at the start. There are of course many reasons, including not inconsequentially that difference between campaigning and governing. That he has had to contend with an inordinately hostile opposition, exacerbated by the issue of race discussed in my last post, has only added to whatever underperformance we might attribute to him. During the heat of the '08 primary campaign, Hilary Clinton ran her famous 3 AM Ad suggesting that Obama was ill prepared for the sudden crisis that face all presidents. Other contenders, contrasting themselves with the inexperienced freshman senator, claimed their readiness ”on day one”. I’m not sure that even the most seasoned politician is truly ready for the very different and unique challenges that face presidents. Even so, Obama came with very limited Washington and executive experience. These deficiencies clearly put him at some disadvantage.
Obama is almost unmatched in speaking to and firing up crowds. He is less so in smaller settings and, if press reports are accurate, in the one-on-one exchanges with politicians in either party required to get things done in DC. For a man who has come so far so fast, he is not a natural (backslapping) politician. Despite his campaign’s phenomenal success in mobilizing the grass roots, Obama falls short at retail politics. Part of that may be because the president for all his public exposure is at heart a private person, a man with a very small close knit set of friends who is most at home, literally and figuratively, with his immediate family. Superficial engagement just isn’t his cup of tea. Early on, people on the Hill have complained that he doesn’t socialize or build personal relationships with them. This probably hurt his presidency, though in the current hostile and poisonous environment, it’s hard to say how much.
One of the ironies of Obama’s tenure is that what will probably be his greatest domestic accomplishment is also the source of what has weakened him most. Most troubling is that it has been a largely self-inflicted wound, and a mystifying one at that. With two years to get prepared, the administration bungled the launch of his signature healthcare program. While new websites, especially those that have to deliver on very complicated functionality, can face glitches, the ACA’s breakdown was inexcusable. In the end it was, as many of us predicted, fixed. Enrollment actually exceeded original targets. But the damage the initial cock-up inflicted on the Obama presidency may have been catastrophic. If the Senate is lost in November, the ACA’s inept rollout will probably be to blame. Republican control of both houses in this environment would mean his presidency will effectively be over.
Many of Obama’s strongest supporters expected a far more liberal president. In part that disappointment comes more from their hopes and expectations than from what he had promised. Obama’s rhetoric has always been that of a progressive moderate, more of the center than of the left. The country’s right tilt just doesn’t produce many left-liberal politicians, certainly not nationally successful ones. Nonetheless, he promised to close Gitmo (yet to be done) and his rhetoric certainly did not foretell the NSA intrusions, the crackdown of leaks and the deporting of so many of the undocumented immigrants. Perhaps Democratic presidents have to prove their national security bona fides, but that doesn’t compensate for our disappointment. So, we can’t give him a pass.
In the aftermath of Viet Nam, America went through a period of military humility, even shell shock. George HW Bush’s first Gulf War — short and successful — probably turned that around. The hubristic aggressiveness of his son swung the pendulum too far, reawakening our post Viet Nam mindset. People like John McCain haven’t gotten that message, or refuse to hear it. Obama does. He understands the public’s appetite for interventionism is limited, probably nonexistent. So he has been reluctant to engage in other people’s conflicts (often civil wars) and, in my view, correctly so. The idea that his policies have weakened America is preposterous. As said earlier, our standing in the world had already taken a huge hit in the Bush years, and in part because of them. But perhaps more important is that while we may still be the preeminent super power, the world has changed drastically. The idea that there can be a single center of gravity no longer obtains in the 21st Century.
To be sure, Obama’s approach to foreign policy has been cautious, and his administration like others before it, has made some mistakes. For all our clout around the world, we remain a very insular nation with often dangerously limited understanding of other countries and cultures. Obama’s caution in part stems from understanding that, as with the presidency itself, his (and our) power is greater in theory than reality. He also seems at times to be torn between his own restraint instincts and the pressure of others (including some Democrats) to act, to do more. So he has drawn “red lines” which made no sense at the start and, once abandoned, have dismayed some at home and abroad. Those are valid criticism, but in truth our record of intervention is at best spotty. War didn’t work in Viet Nam and yielded precious little in Iraq and Afghanistan — all three with huge and long felt costs. Can we do better with negotiations? The jury is still out on Iran and most certainly on Israel-Palestine, but I’m inclined to believe the outcomes are likely to be better, certainly measured against cost-benefit.
Obama, like each of his predecessors, has had some substantial failures. That presidents can fulfill our unfettered hopes is a myth, much like the idea that we are “the greatest”. But in addition to Affordable Care Act, the president has had some notable accomplishments. The economy remains challenging in part because some of the problems that remain are systemic rather than tied to a normal cycle. That said, the recession didn’t morph into a depression and millions of new jobs have been created. Progress, albeit less than we’d like, has been made at financial reform. Dodd-Frank is making a difference, some of it yet to take full force. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been repealed and marriage equality (with the President’s full support) is on its way to becoming a national reality. Some believe too many people remain, but we have ended our military role and have exited Iraq; Afghanistan will follow this year.
Have our expectations of an Obama presidency been met? Perhaps not entirely, but relative to what we experienced in the previous eight years — yes they have. Our country faces some huge problems, some shared with others around the world. Writing this post from Manhattan where income inequality hits you in the face everywhere you look, fixing the disparity seems all the more urgent. We can’t go on like this, certainly not without major social upheaval. Obama is talking about it, pressing for raising the minimum wage, but much more concrete action will be required. We’ve lived through a weird weather year, seasons not behaving in the expected manner, and still are not doing nearly enough to address (even in conversation) the environmental crisis. Even if Obama focuses on nothing else in his remaining time it won’t be enough, but he should try. I think he knows that.
I don’t know who will sit in the Oval Office on January 20, 2017. Whoever it is, she or he should be grateful that Barack Obama kept the place going and led this nation. The hand they will be dealt won’t be a cakewalk, but it’s sure to be far better than what he faced eight years earlier. Yes, the presidency comes with considerable power, but in many ways it’s a miserable, unpredictable and often thankless job. This critical assessment notwithstanding, I’m so glad Obama took it on and remain proud to say he’s my president, our president.