Analysis: Obama at the crossroads
Being the President of the USA is the world's toughest job by a wide margin. It is a job that every day tests how tough, brave, determined or just plain crazy you are. And as the going gets really tough for the current occupant of the White House, the world is trying to assess how much steel is still left in Barack Obama's fibre.
The late president Harry Truman - a man who understood the importance of the caring politics of the New Deal, the realities of big-shouldered, cigar-smoking political men making their deals in back rooms, and the tooth-and-claw nature of international politics - was fond of saying to those savaged by the media or their political opposition, “If you want to have a friend in Washington, you better get a dog”. Well, Barack Obama already has a dog – Bo, the Portuguese water dog, to be precise – but, to some it looks like he's still searching for a few new friends for his agenda.
Despite opinion polls showing the American public still has more faith in and respect for Barack Obama than it does for congress – which, with its approval of around 22% is about the same level of support that used-car salesmen enjoy - and that the public effectively blames congress for the governing impasse in Washington, Obama's administration is drawing increasing heat from its domestic critics. Most especially, his life is being made hell by his Republican congressional critics and their allies at Fox News and thousands of talk radio stations dominated by the likes of right-wing nuts like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. But, of late Obama’s administration is also hearing some increasingly serious grumbling from allies on the left – and even from abroad.
To understand the nature of Obama’s domestic opposition, one needs to look at the culture of today’s Republican party. The party has increasingly boxed itself into American South and Midwest and the small towns and the outer, mostly white, conservative suburban areas around older cities. Republicans have virtually shucked off its older, more liberal, internationalist wing, usually called the East Coast republicans. It is now ideologically more consistent than ever; consistent about its opposition to anything Obama and Democrats want, that is. They have also become much less forgiving of alternative ideas about domestic and foreign policies. Based on their growing internal ideological coherence, Republicans, as a party, are less interested in compromise on matters of “principle” and less willing to work with Democrats for bipartisan consensus. Republican congressional leaders keep their members in line much more effectively than do the Democrats now.
As a party with few fundamental ideological divisions, Republicans see lockstep opposition to the Obama healthcare plan as their way back to success in this year's mid-term election, thereby rolling back some of the gains Democrats achieved in Obama’s 2008 election. Healthcare reform continues to be an enormously emotional issue in the US and the Republicans hope to draw upon fears about it to build support for the upcoming election.
For example, they hope to convince the elderly that health care reform will produce cuts in Medicare (the government-organised health plan for those older than 65) or to exploit concerns by those voters who are relatively happy with their current privately paid plans and don't want them disturbed. And they also hope to reach those who believe the so-called government “takeover” of healthcare is simply the next step in the expansion of the federal government – the so-called “tea party rebellion” supporters. Their partners in this message, the health insurance companies, plan to spend some serious money on ads attacking the plan as the congressional end game approaches. Insurance companies have much more than ideology to fight for: the current system allows them to have near monopolistic powers in their states, to cherry pick their healthy clients and exclude people with pre-existing conditions they don't like. Needless to say, insurance companies make huge profits these days and are unlikely to give them up without fighting tooth and nail.
At the same time, Barack Obama’s opposition hopes to exploit popular anger about the bank bailout, or TARP, and the stimulus package. The latter, of course, was standard Keynesian economic policy – prime the pump by spending government cash, going into deficit and getting the population working, earning and spending again when there is a recession or depression. The former was actually passed during George W Bush’s administration, but popular revulsion against the measure – especially after some of the bailed-out banks began to dole out obscene bonuses to senior staff – basically sealed the deal for many.
Outside the banking community, it is hard to find a supporter of the bank bailout anymore. And, despite TARP’s origins in a Republican administration, it actually had to be passed in congress with Democratic support and so Republicans have succeeded in sticking this measure on Obama. For many, the bailout has reinforced a view that Obama’s first year has primarily been about saving big business and banks – and bankers.
This, in turn, has fed the so-called “tea party rebellion” of people who fear government – and, if polling is correct – are deeply frightened by the growth in the federal deficit as exemplified by the healthcare plan, the TARP and the stimulus package as a burden on future generations. There is a continuum of opposition from mainstream Republicanism to social conservatives, then on to the tea-party fiscal conservatives, and finally to libertarians such as congressman Ron Paul who believe there is something like a leftist cabal threatening to spend the country into penury and ruin.
But Obama’s critics and detractors are not limited to Republicans and the far right. His own party comprises a distracting range of critics as well. One symptom of this, of course, is the growing number of media articles about his inner circle of advisors fuelled by leaks or private comments to journalists. Back in Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, when advisors first grew in number and influence, Roosevelt described White House advisors as people who needed “a passion for anonymity”.
But, in the Obama era, by the one-year mark, chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel, press spokesman Robert Gibbs, senior advisors Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod have all been featured in a growing range of in-depth media coverage. The hallmark of all of these is a sense of a close-knit fraternity that is whispering tales out of school in an effort to slide the blame for Obama’s perceived failures on to the other guy. It is a sort of a reverse version of John Kennedy’s adage as he surveyed the collapse of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961: “Success has a thousand fathers; defeat is an orphan”. In this current case, everyone points to someone else as the real father of the failures so far.
In foreign affairs as well, the Obama administration is now being criticised as well for its inability to forge strong relationships with other national leaders, save, perhaps, for Dmitry Medvedev. The real paradox here is that according to all polls, Obama continues to be greatly popular abroad – even in nations such as Turkey and Indonesia, where anti-Americanism has been an issue.
Commentators are beginning to argue that Obama is focusing so tightly on his troubling (and difficult) domestic agenda that he seems to be reluctant to take time needed to forge relationships with foreign leaders, although if something needed to be done or decided, he has readily picked up the phone. For some, though, the argument is that in both foreign and domestic affairs, Obama’s cerebral coolness can carry a cost.
But the biggest challenge for Obama now is that his Democrats are divided among themselves, not lined up crisply behind him. Passing healthcare reform would have been infinitely easier (and might well have been accomplished by now) had the Democratic party been as unified as its Republican counterparts. Over the past year, the country has watched as senate and house Democrats fought over the various features of the plan, then fought about the kinds of compromises needed to pass a measure, and between the different versions between the two wings of congress. Now that the Democrats have lost their guaranteed supermajority, critics argue that a more unified party could well have passed the measure before losing Ted Kennedy’s senate seat.
The more populist wing of the Democrats is increasingly concerned that Obama has tied himself to saving the banks, passing his social agenda and, until his State of the Union address a few weeks ago, being relatively less engaged on unemployment and job creation – the issue foremost on the minds of the people who are the backbone of the party. For example, economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has argued strongly that the real problem with the stimulus package was not that it was too big, but, rather, that it was too small and wasn’t visible enough for people to get a real sense of its impact.
George Packer wrote in the most recent issue of The New Yorker magazine, “A year in, Obama’s Presidency resembles, in uncanny ways, Ronald Reagan’s at the same point. The public has rejected a previous President, and has attached inchoate hopes to the new one; an ambitious domestic agenda is being forged amid economic misery and widespread discontent. Thirty years later, it’s easy to forget how perilous Reagan’s situation was in 1982. By the late fall of that year, unemployment was at 10.8% (higher than it is today); the deficit was swelling: and his economic program of tax cuts appeared to be failing.”
Packer quotes Virginia Democratic congressman Tom Perriello (clearly feeling the heat of populist criticism of Obama) when he says, “the thing that gives me hope right now is that the President has got the message that this is a ‘let Obama be Obama’ moment, that he should rise or fall on who he really is. The downside is, I don’t think we know yet who he really is.”
The next several weeks will go a long way towards defining who Obama is. If his healthcare reform package is finally passed and signed, it will be much clearer that he is prepared to put it all on the line for a goal; winning on this will allow him to use those bargaining chips for his next objective. This can carry over to foreign policy as well - as opponents come to see Obama as a leader who is willing to back his bets for what he believes.
Perhaps Obama can begin to redefine his presidency similarly to how Harry Truman made his case in 1948 against rebels in his own party on the left and the right, and against an opposition united behind governor Thomas Dewey. He could take his case to the country for the upcoming mid-term election. Truman could pass an ambitious social agenda and the very controversial desegregation of the armed forces, back the Marshall Plan and Nato and create a pro-employment, pro-growth economic policy. And, above all, with his “Give ‘em hell Harry” campaign personae, he created the enduring image of an energetic fighter for the needs and rights of the little guy. Obama has three years to recapture the euphoria of his remarkable 2008 presidential campaign by responding to the challenges of his own time. The question remains: Will he be able to do it?
By J Brooks Spector
Photo: President Barack Obama signs H.R. 4691, Temporary Extension Act of 2010, in his private office in the residence of the White House, March 2, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)