Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
Much as I hate to, let me say it plain. As a reporter who has covered politics and Washington and six presidents over 50 years, the presidency of Barack Obama has been a disappointment so far. I’ve hesitated before writing this, for I despair that my criticism might aid or abet his vicious, vindictive enemies.
I hesitate also because I cannot naysay his Nobel Prize, for fear I might seem to agree with his predictably stupid enemies who are intellectual midgets compared to Obama. They make themselves smaller with their every word.
But Obama himself wondered if the prize was premature when he said, “I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize.”
I have met several of those figures, including Nelson Mandela and Rev. Desmond Tutu. They praised Obama for his prize. I believe it was a prize reflective of the national and world view of Obama; we all hope he lives up to his prize and his ringing words that have echoed around the globe.
But for now, it’s fair to ask, does he realize the terrible irony of winning such a prize while planning an escalation of a war? Does he ponder the lives of soldiers and innocent civilians and money already lost and still to be spent in faraway places while too many of his countrymen are without jobs, homes and medical care?
History does not repeat itself. And I don’t expect a repeat of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 100 days of 1933 or Lyndon Johnson’s remarkable accomplishments of 1965. But to twist the advice of the philosopher George Santayana, if Barack Obama doesn’t pay closer attention to how those Democratic presidents governed, he (and we) may not get another chance at good, civilized government for a very long time.
In June, 1933, just three months after Roosevelt took office, the new Congress, prodded by the president, with the help of two conservative Democrats, Senator Carter Glass of Virginia and Representative Henry Steagall of Alabama, passed the (Glass-Steagall) National Banking Act to tame the financial institutions that had caused the Great Depression. It lasted nearly 70 years, until another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, approved its demise.
Sure, President Obama was left with the results, which were compounded by modern-day Hoovers in Bush clothing. Obama acted with strength to get his stimulus passed. And to the relief of Wall Street, he spent hundreds of billions of dollars to save the banks that were responsible for this Great Recession.
But elsewhere in the crises confronting the cities and working Americans, there has been little to cheer about. And despite Obama’s pledges, promises and soaring rhetoric, the bailed out banks and investment houses are up to their insatiable greed again. And there is no regulation like Glass-Steagall in sight.
I wasn’t there during Roosevelt’s time, but I was around as a reporter for much of Johnson’s presidency when he and his Democratic congress gave the country Medicare, Medicaid and the unprecedented Civil Rights Act.
Less known, but of monumental importance was the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the educational centerpiece of Johnson’s Great Society, the War on Poverty which addressed inequality for blacks as well as poor whites in the public and parochial schools.
I bring this up as an example of political leadership because a few years after its passage, I heard from then Reresentative. Hugh Carey, who later became New York’s Governor, how Johnson got the bill passed. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of the details, but I remember the essentials. It remains a lesson for today on the nitty-gritty of good politics.
Carey, then a top member of the House Education and Labor Committee, told the story to a few reporters including me. The president, impatient with congressional bickering over his bill, called all the leading players to the White House for a sumptuous dinner with drink. The sticking points in the bill, as I recall, included southern Democratic resistance to school desegregation, which would be enhanced by the legislation, and Catholic insistence that parochial schools get some federal support.
Johnson never forgot his teaching days in poverty-stricken rural Texas. And he had been one of history’s most effective Senate Majority Leaders. That evening he cajoled, pleaded and argued with the lawmakers around the table telling them, essentially, to “do the right thing by the children.”
Then, according to Carey, the president bid them good night told them they would not leave the White House that night until they agreed on a bill. Sometime during the night, Johnson appeared in his bathrobe to see how his guests were coming. And by morning a bill was agreed on that passed on April 9, without a single amendment, three months into Johnson’s tern and 87 days after it was introduced.
I suppose Johnson twisted arms, made promises and even threatened. But that’s called governing, asserting presidential powers of persuasion and leadership based on a firm belief in something and taking a stand. Only when he did not trust his political instinct did he and his presidency get in trouble in Vietnam.
Now, with a Democratic majority in Congress stronger than it has been in years, friends of Barack Obama are waiting for him to come down from his ubiquitous television appearances and turn his lofty rhetoric into governing. “Yes, we can,” should become, “This is how.”
Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, who is friendly towards Obama, wrote in the October 5 issue,
“Despite his many words and television appearances, our elegant and eloquent president remains more an emblem of change than an agent of it. He’s a man with an endless, worthy to-do list – health care, climate change, bank reform, global capital regulation...you name it – but, as yet no boxes checked ‘done'...Members of Obama’s own party know who Obama is not; they still sometimes wonder who he really is.”
As Fineman notes, Obama admired Ronald Reagan’s presidency as “transformative.” And it was. Yet Reagan, who I covered, won his initial battles against a Democratic Congress with a firm, unwavering agenda – tax cuts, smaller domestic government, an unprecedented military buildup to challenge the crumbling Soviets. Obama has yet to show us how, specifically, he will transform the nation. Surely it won’t be by watering down practically every pledge and proposal?
The comedian Bill Maher was less gentle in his new rules on September 26:
“If America can’t get its act together, it must lose the bald eagle as our symbol...I don’t care about the president’s birth certificate. I do want to know what happened to ‘Yes we can.’ Can we get out of Iraq? No. Afghanistan? No. Fix health care? No. Close Gitmo? No. Cap-and-trade carbon emissions? No. The Obamas have been in Washington for ten months and it seems like the only thing they’ve gotten is a dog.”
That certainly isn’t quite true. In many small, but significant ways, Obama has made government more of a friend for ordinary Americans. The minimum wage has been raised. Unemployment compensation has been extended. A silly Reagan Star Wars dream has been ended. Women are better protected from sexist bosses. Torture has been outlawed. But on the battlegrounds that Obama has chosen, he’s been long on rhetoric but very short on action.
At this writing, having backed away from single-payer Medicare for All, which he gave up on before the fight started, we still don’t know how firm his support is for the public option, which he says he favors. He praises Senator Max Baucus, as he votes “no” on the issue. He does not say a word to the Democrats who threaten to aid in a Republican filibuster against the public option. He does not take Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (no LBJ) to task for his weaknesses and defeatism.
Does Obama get angry with anyone? Can he twist arms? Can he promise rewards or presidential punishment? A president who cannot wield political as well as persuasive power in Washington is seen as weak. He and his office doesn’t frighten recalcitrant Democrats let alone lying Republicans. Who is afraid of defying him? His popularity means power, if he’ll use it.
There is a larger issue and a more troubling criticism from the fine historian, Garry Wills in an essay, Entangled Obama, in the October 8 New York Review of Books. I read it against the background of these reports:
1. On September 30, Reuters reported that the Obama administration is appealing to the Supreme Court to retain the part of George W. Bush’s Patriot Act that makes criminals of persons who give support to foreign groups, even charities, if they associate with terrorists.
2. On the same day the White House press secretary said the administration may miss the hoped for date for closing Guantanamo.
3. And a top general said he may get the number of U.S. troops in Iraq down to 50,000, perhaps by next summer. On September 29, The New York Times noted that the administration will continue to use “the state secrets privilege” to prevent law suits alleging torture and unlawful wiretapping.
Wills also noted that CIA Chief Leon Panetta, with Obama’s approval, said the practice of “extraordinary rendition” would continue, but the countries to which prisoners are sent would not torture them (sure).
Detainees (prisoners) would continue to be tried by military tribunals. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” continues to cost the military Arab speakers. But torturers of the recent past, and especially those who gave the orders, would not be prosecuted.
Thus the presidency, especially under Bush and Vice President Cheney, has accrued enormous executive power, Wills said. And
“...in the empire created by National Security State,” he wrote, “a president is greatly pressured to keep all the empire’s secrets. He feels he must avoid embarrassing the hordes of agents, military personnel, and diplomatic instruments whose loyalty he must command. Keeping up morale in this vast, shady enterprise is something impressed on him by all manner of commitments. He becomes a prisoner of his own power.”
Perhaps that helps explain why Barack Obama, entangled by bankers, insurance and drug companies, who also own Congress, as well as the vast dark side of the National Security State, has yet to break free.
MILESTONE ALERT: Geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas, author of my favorite book on aging, What Are Old People For? and former contributor to Time Goes By, reaches one of those big, round-number birthdays today - 50. You can leave greetings and welcome him into the elderhood clan at his blog, Changing Aging. Happy birthday, Bill.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: Under the Beechwood Trees