Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Some Advice for President Obama

According to some reports, President Obama intends to accept some responsibility in his State of the Union address, but not blame, for not delivering more quickly on his promises of change. His aides, and perhaps he, feel that the problem has been one of communication rather than content.

Well, I don’t agree. I think a major problem has been the President’s leadership style. Instead of stepping up to the plate and leading he has stepped back and let Congress hammer out important legislation. In my judgment this has been catastropic. First, the President took this approach with the stimulus package. More recently he took the same approach with healthcare reform. As a result, many Americans remain confused not only about President Obama’s objectives but about what Congress has wrought.

And this leadership style is apparently something Obama believes in. He outlined it during the Democratic primaries when he spoke favorably of Ronald Reagan as a transformative president. He didn’t embrace Reagan’s policies but he spoke very favorably about Reagan’s leadership style – staying above the fray and letting others work out the find details. I’m not at all sure this worked for Reagan but in any case I think it has failed miserably for Obama.

On content, I think Obama needs to talk candidly to the American people about the economy. I think he should explain, not condescendingly but nonetheless directly, that he feels it was necessary to “bail out” the banks. He should acknowledge that it wasn’t and still isn’t popular but that he had to do it to keep the economy from sinking even more than it has. He should make clear, however, that bailing them out was the beginning and not the end, and that he intends to get back from them every penny given them and more and to regulate them so that the American economy is not held hostage in the future by failing private institutions.

But the President also needs to acknowledge to the American people that he did not do enough to support Main Street while he was rescuing Wall Street and to make clear how he intends to energize Main Street now, help reduce the high unemployment rate and provide some support for almost destitute State treasuries. He should admit that the stimulus bill was not as effective as it should have been, not only in releasing far more of it into the economy at an earlier period in time but in better selecting the economic sectors for which money was earmarked so that job creation could have been speeded up.

Many claim that the election of a Republican Senator in Massachusetts shows the defection of independents from Obama because he has been too radical, grown the deficit far too much, and pressed a healthcare reform that left many confused over its content and more concerned with the economy than healthcare. Others, particularly liberal Democrats, claim that disaffection with Obama is attributable to his not being radical enough, capitulating to Republicans and conservative Democrats, and not moving forward aggressively on his own agenda, including healthcare reform.

I lean more toward the former explanation than the latter. I myself found the healthcare reform debate alienating. I was and remain annoyed that the President disappeared from sight and I find even now he talks in generalities and campaign rhetoric rather than being more specific and clearer. As I approach Medicare I am admittedly concerned about cuts to the program. But Obama’s healthcare reform will cut funds from Medicare, or at least curtail growth. Yet, I have not seen a straightforward acknowledgment of this and an explanation as to why I should not be concerned. I’m in favor of many of the components of the Democratic approaches, such as eliminating the exclusion for pre-existing conditions, making insurance more portable, increasing competition and having some alternative to the insurance industry for those who cannot find affordable insurance in the private sector. But I still don’t understand how the House or Senate versions will accomplish all these things without possibly damaging Medicare and increasing costs for those who currently have insurance.

And I think Obama dropped the ball by allowing the healthcare debate not only to drift because he provided no leadership, but to crowd out his and Democratic party concern with the terrible economy. While unemployment continued to rise and State governments such as California continued to wallow in debt and caution that state programs would be eliminated, Obama and the Democrats remained fixed on healthcare. That has been a mistake.

I want President Obama to succeed. Because he is so much younger than I, I don’t have the sense of confidence in him that I had in some Democratic (and a few Republican) presidents who were older than I when in office. But that’s not because he is less talented. That’s because I am older and, if not wiser, at least not as willing to simply trust political and other leaders. I think he continues to learn on the job, but that has been the case for all presidents, even those who had longer political resumes than his before becoming president. I do wish he would show more passion in his speeches; not the rhetoric read from a teleprompter that he displayed during his campaign and not angry outbursts at bankers or insurance executives, but, rather, his heartfelt human emotions and feelings. He tends to come across as cold and efficient. I appreciate that he is able to properly and effectively use the English language, unlike his predecessor, but I want him to show more genuine warmth and feeling, which I believe he has within him.

I remain an Obama supporter, not only because I like him, respect his intellect, and share many of his views, but as well because the Republicans scare me. I grew up in New York where the Republican party held key positions but it was a moderate party, of Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits. Although I disagreed with him profoundly on the role of government in the economy, I could stomach Barry Goldwater because he had libertarian views on many issues. Today the Republican party is dominated by those who may still favor less government involvement in the economy but who, paradoxically, favor more government involvement in the bedroom and elsewhere in people's private lives. As well, they have become shrill, particularly in trying to undermine the President on totally ridiculous grounds, such as claiming he wasn’t born in the United States or supports terrorism or is otherwise completely out of the mainstream. I have become more of a moderate in my political views than in the past but these tendencies among Republicans alarm me.

I hope President Obama, starting with tonight’s State of the Union address, is able to restore confidence in his leadership among those, including me, who have lost some of it.