There is no doubt that it is a case of exaggerated expectation. Here we were on January 20, 2009 watching the first black man to be elected President take the oath of office. He was anointed by a Kennedy. He was for many, the new John Kennedy. Of course, even JFK wasn’t “JFK”. So right off the bat our measurement of Barack Obama had to be out-sized. Today marks the last full day of his first year in office and interestingly, it coincides with a potential repudiation of liberal politics in the state of Massachusetts as the state’s residents go to the polls to choose between Democrat, Martha Coakley and Republican, Scott Brown.
The terms of Obama’s campaign were lofty. Hope and change in a time of despair and politics as usual. Obama was virtually setting himself up to fall short. While I would not characterize his first year as a failure by any means, one cannot deny the let-down as we assess where we are a year later.
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The PR Campaign on the Stimulus Package
The stimulus money has helped. There is no doubt about that. There are teachers, policemen and firemen who would be jobless today were it not for the stimulus package. Yet for some reason the brilliant public relations campaign that catapulted Obama to the White House completely disappeared post-inauguration. No one can blame the average American for wondering what good the stimulus package did because the results are never thrown in our face. Part of this may be due to that part of the main stream media which leans left, spending the entire year on the defensive. I can’t begin to count the nights of watching MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann calling out the GOP and its proxies as liars and worse. Seldom, however was the purely positive, uplifting victory lap. Obama is not blameless in this either. It could well be argued that time spent on the “Beer Summit” with a Harvard professor and the cop with whom he had a feud, could have been better spent flying out to a construction site, wearing a hard hat, and getting that great photo-op for a new highway project getting started. Of all the things we would never have expected the Obama team to fail at — optics — they failed at miserably.
The Restoration of the American Brand Around the World
We hear constantly that we now look better on the world stage since Obama was sworn in. I have no doubt that Obama’s rhetoric of international coöperation, our re-entry into the family of nations, has gone over very well. Obama is indeed a rock star throughout Europe. It would be quite hard not to improve on George W. Bush’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to governing. But how much has really changed? The climate change summit resulted in non-binding agreements … otherwise known as sound and fury signifying nothing. Only recently does it look like China and Russia may help us get Iran to behave better. And speaking of Iran, there has been no discernable change in the attitudes of Muslim nations. We still have state-tolerated if not outright state-sponsored terrorism as the number one threat to our safety. The condemnation of Islamist radicalism from powerful Muslims has still not materialized.
Health Care Reform
Obama’s biggest mistake with health care reform was over-correcting Hillary Clinton’s mistake of 1994. Hillary micro-managed. Obama threw the effort at Congress and they pounced like an Alice Cooper audience tearing apart a chicken. With a super majority in the Senate, one would think this would go down nice and easy but instead it devolved into a fight between left Democrats and blue dogs. The bill currently being hashed out between the House and the Senate is a love letter to the insurance industry, a funnel of guaranteed customers. The most socially important part of the legislation is itself fatally flawed. Under the new law, insurance companies can no longer deny coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions. The catch, however, is that they can still charge sick people a much higher premium than healthy people, thereby still making the purchase of insurance for some, cost prohibitive. While I am fully in favor of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, not nearly enough good will come out of this legislation. If it passes it will be more a symbolic victory than a substantial change in the American administration of health care.
Our Leftist President
While conservatives moan and groan about our Marxist president, the truth is that Obama is not nearly as left-leaning as hard-core leftists would have hoped. His record so far on GLBT issues is lackluster at best. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is still the military policy du jour. Obama has openly opposed gay marriage (favoring instead, civil unions). Getting back to health care reform, Obama immediately abandoned support of a single payer system, the only truly radical alternative to the status quo, and he has been reserved in his support of the public option. True lefties want us out of Iraq AND Afghanistan. Obama has upped the ante in Afghanistan.
Politics as Usual
Perhaps the biggest disappointment, but the one most based on unrealistic expectation, is that we would see a post-partisan government that got things done. Today’s election in Massachusetts bears witness to how little has changed in a year. Liberals like myself are concerned with Martha Coakley winning because we don’t want to give up our super majority in the Senate. Politics as usual dictates that without a super majority, gridlock ensues as recalcitrant Republicans block every Democratic measure. But the rub is that Martha Coakley has been one lousy candidate. Her win represents just a number we need. It does not represent anything close to the lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, whom she would be replacing. Under Obama the inter-party bickering has gotten ten times worse. His opponents question his citizenship and say he wants to destroy America. His proponents launch often equally vicious attacks on the GOP. (A perfect example is Keith Olbermann advancing the dubious notion that Scott Brown endorsed having a hot curling iron inserted in Martha Coakley’s rectum. The video upon which he bases his assertion is inconclusive at best.)
The Dispassionate Professor
America desperately wanted a change from the gut-feel approach of George W. Bush but I think in retrospect they wanted brains AND guts. Obama often looks like a professor addressing his class. He often takes the role of teacher-in-chief, the Ward Cleaver dad who gives you good advice and imparts important lessons. Even when he’s angry, he doesn’t seem that angry. This reminds me a bit of my transition from academia to corporate America some 27 years ago. When I left Harvard, I longed for an end to everything being intellectualized to death. I wanted to hear a mofo called a mofo. Corporate America gave me that respite. However after a few years, I longed to hear people THINK again. Meat and potatoes goes just so far. Obama is still the academic president and much of America will not warm up to this until he injects more passion into his approach.
I am sure conservatives would say I’ve left out a host of other failings. Quite frankly, I think Obama has done an admirable job in a difficult time. He was not as bold as many would have hoped but then didn’t we all project a bit of our own aspirations on him? Certainly on Afghanistan, his policy was always clear and none of us has a right to be upset about the upcoming deployment of more troops. He was never a peacenick and those who thought he was were engaged in projection, pure and simple.
Despite the common conception that if you want to get things done, you must do it in the first year, presidencies are not defined by the first year. Presidents popular in year one (e.g. George W. Bush) can end up with disastrous administrations and presidents with low first year opinion polls can go on to win second terms and be successful. I have not given up on our president. I will still root for him and defend him against unfair attacks. However, the statute of limitations on the Bush legacy excuse officially ends today. Beginning tomorrow, Obama must stop talking about what he inherited and start focusing on what country he will pass on to the next administration.