Friday, October 2, 2009

My View of President Obama After Chicago’s Dismal Showing in Copenhagen

A close friend and loyal reader of my blog sent me an opinion piece by Tim Reid, a Washington based writer for the TimesOnLine, a London based news publication, entitled “Obama’s Olympic failure will only add to doubts about his Presidency.” Reid wrote that Chicago’s dismal showing was a stunning humiliation for Obama. He further claimed that “There has been a growing narrative taking hold about Barack Obama’s presidency in recent weeks: that he is loved by many, but feared by none; that he is full of lofty vision, but is actually achieving nothing with his grandiloquence.” After commenting critically of Obama’s lack of success in building a bipartisan coalition in the healthcare reform battle, his seeming equivocation over a war strategy in Afghanistan, and the absence thus far of positive results vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program, Reid concluded that the perception is that “Obama’s soaring rhetoric — which captured the imagination during last year’s election — is simply not enough when it comes to confronting the myriad challenges of the presidency. His spectacular Olympic failure will only add to that.” Reid's commentary

My friend invited my reaction and here are my mixed feelings.

Yes, I sometimes think Obama is trying to tackle too many things at once and not really succeeding at any of them. But then I try to put things in perspective and when all is said and done he still impresses me.

Healthcare is one big mess and I have been critical of Obama for not taking the lead but, rather, giving it to Congressional committees as he did with the stimulus package. But I’m not sure taking the lead would have truly avoided the obstacles inherent in trying to bring change to such a monumental and central public policy issue and part of the economy. There are entrenched interests and they are not going to roll over. There are those of us, including me and perhaps a majority, who don’t like paying increasing premiums but are concerned about unduly rocking the boat. And what about Medicare? Untouched? Unscathed? Well, first the President said absolutely yes, it would not be touched. Then Medicare Advantage was going to be axed. Meanwhile payments to hospitals and physicians were going to be further curtailed. Oops. What’s that all about? Straight talk? Not really. But, the point is that changing healthcare is an incredibly difficult chore. Some Republicans claim they favor some incremental changes in certain areas but haven’t really offered anything meaningful and seem not to want to take a bite out of the insurance industry itself. So, yes Obama is not sailing through on this central issue but, then, which previous president did on this subject matter?

On Afghanistan, that is indeed a conundrum. Yes, Obama’s silence and implied equivocation may not paint him in a positive light as a confident leader who has no doubts. But what should we do? It isn’t as if George W. Bush faired any better in his war policies — a mess in Afghanistan and a long war not of necessity in Iraq whose outcome we really don’t yet know other than American troops are slowly leaving. Will the Shia majority be able to govern in relative peace? Will the Sunnis accept minority status or will large elements return to rebellion as American forces continue to exit? Will Kurds be able to live in stable peace with the Arab Iraqis? I wish I knew the answers. But back to Afghanistan. A fine mess. No success for Bush and Cheney in finding Osama. Growing deterioration and instability in neighboring and vital Pakistan on their watch. Some conservatives, like George Will, breaking ranks and suggesting American interests are not to be served by continuing to make war in Afghanistan. A surge? It is not as if the situation, terrain, tribal makeup or character of the central government are truly analogous to Iraq at the point a surge was implemented there. Heck, I’m not sure what to do and if I’m not sure how can I fault Obama? ;-)

The Middle East? No, Obama is not persuading the Israelis to abandon settlements or growth in settlements but which President has truly succeeded in bring both sides to the bargaining table and making something happen?

Iran? Tell me George W. or Bill Clinton or the great Ronald Reagan, for that matter, succeeded in bringing Iran either to its knees or back into the international community. Bush failed miserably. The jury is out on whether Obama’s approach, however it is described, brings any greater success. I don’t know how the world, including Israel, keeps Iran from developing nuclear weapons in the next 10 years.

Neither Clinton nor George W., nor their predecessors, succeeded in reining in North Korea so it’s difficult to fault Obama for not at this point succeeding.

The economy? Yes, unemployment continues to increase, far more in California than in the nation as a whole. Not good. And it isn’t clear how much the stimulus stimulated, whether it is still an ongoing process or a failure. All the loans and payouts to banks and other industries don’t sit well for any of us, nor does enormous governmental ownership, but I don’t hear anyone except perhaps Glenn Beck, and I don’t watch or listen to him, saying that propping up the banks, as opposed to the stimulus bill, was a waste and that the government should have stood idly by and let capitalism work its “magic,” invisible hand and all. Oh, I forgot, Michael Moore may be claiming that but I put him in the same box as Glenn Beck. I mean, there were other voices and I don’t claim to understand liquidity and all that, but it seems to me that the majority of voices with some expertise in economic matters believed that some rescue efforts to stave off an even worse collapse in the credit markets and elsewhere were required.

So, does that mean I give Obama an A grade? Absolutely not. But I don’t think he is failing either. He is struggling but that’s because the issues in front of him — the economy that experienced a meltdown, a lengthy war in an effort to keep a country from once again providing sanctuary to al Qaida in incredibly rugged terrain amongst a traditionalist population that has never accepted foreign domination, and an effort to reform a healthcare system that requires at least some reform given the huge numbers of uninsured and the uncertainty of retaining coverage when one’s health deteriorates — are enormous. Yes Chicago was voted out in the first round in Copenhagen but I don’t think that was because of Obama. I think it was despite Obama. Does that mean no one fears Obama? I grant that most successful leaders succeed in exercising power in part through fear. But I think it’s too early in Obama’s presidency to gauge whether his strategies and tactics will work in that manner. And fear does not necessarily mean fear of being invaded, bombed or otherwise assaulted. It is often far more subtle than that.

I still support Obama and his efforts. He has disappointed some of his more ardent, liberal supporters with his tendency to seek an elusive consensus. I am not among them. But despite his electoral victory and some polls that suggest most Americans want a public option in healthcare reform, I don’t think there is a clear consensus among Americans on any of the three key issues I identified above: how to heal the economy, reform healthcare, and manage the war in Afghanistan. He must lead and not simply govern by poll results, but he also must avoid losing touch with the sentiments of the vast number of Americans. I’m still in his corner.