Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Year, and Change
I'm a couple weeks late to get in on all the navel-gazing around the fact that the country elected Barack Obama president last November. But the last post I made, about deficit reduction, probably gave away that it's been on my mind: [T]hough it pains me to admit it as someone who was such a big fan of the guy only a year ago, I haven't seen many signs that Obama himself has the political courage to really take on these tough fights in his own party. Is he going to push for changes in entitlements to save them, even though seniors will vigorously resist? Can he withstand the political heat that any Democrat draws when s/he utters the mildest peep of protest against our absurdly bloated military spending and global posture of empire?

I was emailing with a friend this weekend and trying to articulate what it was about Obama's first ten months in office that has disappointed me so. The seeming timidity I alluded to in that post has something to do with it, as does some of the substance: that he's essentially kissed Wall Street's ass, proven much more reactionary on gay rights issues than could be expected from his campaign, and perpetuated most (not all) of the Bush-era policies around the SuperDuper Executive and the Permanent War State. There's a moral center that I and many others perceived in the man during the campaign which feels like it's gone missing through his first year.

A style that verges on the overly deliberative can rankle, too--not so much on Afghanistan, where I want him to take the time and get it right (and where I was pleased that he essentially rejected the first set of options with which he was presented, telling his advisors to go back and figure out something better--that's the mark of a guy with a highly sophisticated BS detector), but on things like the recently-announced "jobs summit." Maybe it's because I actually know something about this issue, but my first reaction was that we don't need more talk--we need policy initiatives that put federal resources behind wage subsidy programs, transitional jobs, and shared work models as well as immediate help for community colleges, some of which around these parts are now literally turning students away. (During a contracting labor market, you want more people going to school: it takes them out of the jobseeker pool for now and positions them to ride the wave when employment rebounds later.)

But then I remember that coming up with the policy is only half the answer; the other half is getting political buy-in for it. Governing is, as Obama's predecessor memorably put it, "hard work": it's easier, and in some ways more fun, to be outside the gates brandishing your torches and pitchforks, which is why all the energy in American politics seems to be with the Tea Party/Palinoid Right at the moment. Obama's Jobs Summit, pointless stunt though it might initially seem, is probably a necessary prerequisite to getting buy-in from Congress, labor, big business and perhaps even Republicans, who would find it awkward to blast the administration and Congressional Democrats next year for not focusing on job creation right after opposing whatever job creation proposals emerge from the summit.

What drew me to support Obama in the first place--aside from his merits as a man of letters, the subject of a very interesting GQ feature I read this evening--was that he seemed to have an idealistic sense of where he believed the country should go, coupled with a core pragmatic streak that would ensure we didn't get there so quickly that people would freak out--the same match of visionary ends and incrementalist means that was the key to the presidential mastery of Lincoln and FDR. Big change not supported by a durable, popular majority isn't likely to be very successful or long-lasting. It could be argued that on health care, on national security and foreign policy, on fiscal responsibility, on the proper role of government in the economy, he's engaged in a long game toward building those big, durable changes. And there's some reason to believe he's made progress in that direction.

Yet it's frustrating to see him give ground on core issues: silent on gay marriage even when it's the status quo, as in Maine before the referendum a couple weeks back, and on Don't Ask, Don't Tell when he could end it with the stroke of a pen. I understand the political calculations in favor of taking it slow--more for the internal/institutional audience than the electorate, which I don't think much cares anymore--and as I think about it I realize that I actually do have faith that he'll ultimately end it. But if "the time is always right to do what is right," then isn't delay a moral defeat?

It's also important to remember--and I haven't always managed to do so--that the presidency is a job one grows into. I think I wrote on here earlier this year that it's like being in an auto race in which you have the best car, but don't really know how to drive at the start. Probably it takes a year or two to understand the power and limitations of the office; it certainly did for Clinton and Reagan. In the meantime, the number of ways in which you can screw up is almost unlimited. In Obama's case, I think he waited too long to make a real effort to impose some structure and responsibility on Wall Street--and for that matter, he brought too many "captured" guys inside his administration. I don't doubt the brilliance of Larry Summers or Tim Geithner, but both had their fingerprints all over the crash. Maybe Obama had to hire them for the same reason Joe Biden says they had to go through with the bailout: to do otherwise would have been to court disaster. But I think they rolled him.

Ultimately, a lot has gotten done in Obama's not-quite-completed first year in office. (If you don't think he's desperate to get that health care bill signed before Jan. 20--and the CBO score of the Senate bill released tonight will help--you're nuts.) The stimulus did help in the short term, and set down markers for long-term investment that many of us who work in public policy found very heartening. The bailout, while politically toxic, seems likely to work out well for the taxpayers. Our international reputation has improved considerably. And all this has happened in the face of a political opposition little short of insane.

But the story really is yet to be told. When Biden was on the Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart said, "I don't know if you guys are Jedi masters that are making ten chess moves ahead or if this whole thing is kicking your ass." I'm not sure they know themselves.

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