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GRAY MATTERS: Obama So Far

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. His Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, appears here at Time Goes By twice each month.

Approaching the time for an assessment of Barack Obama’s first year in the presidency, those of us with memory have discovered that he’s not a Franklin Roosevelt of tough bank regulation and Social Security, or a Lyndon Johnson of civil rights and Medicare.

So it’s all the more ridiculous that Republicans and assorted right-wing loonies demonize him as a socialist, fascist, communist and Nazi and have nothing else to offer except to obstruct. But that makes it all the more puzzling that Obama, with the kind of Democratic majorities in Congress that Roosevelt and Johnson had, has not been able to accomplish more than he has.

Let me suggest one reason. After grappling with the financial and automobile industry crises with limited success, Obama’s 10-month preoccupation with health care reform, while well-intentioned and necessary, has chewed up his time and political energy and has gotten in the way of the changes he had promised and Americans had hoped for. And how much he has to show for it is uncertain.

Obama has depended on stirring rhetoric rather than hands-on leadership. He has shown no inclination to fight or twist arms. But both battles have sapped his political strength. As polls show, the $700 billion federal bailouts of banks and Wall Street have become deeply unpopular and the proposed health reforms have been whittled away with so many compromises it has become top-heavy with qualifiers that it is no longer seen by even its supporters as a real and immediate breakthrough.

Rep. John Conyers, (D., Michigan,), the second longest-serving House member, who voted for the health care reform, uncharacteristically let loose on Obama in a November 18 interview with Bill Press. “I’m getting tired of saving Obama’s can,” said Conyers. “I mean he won by only five votes in the House and this bill wasn’t anything to write home about.” Asked if the president had demonstrated leadership, Conyers said,

“Of course not. Holding hands out and beer on Friday nights in the White House and bowing down to every nutty right-wing proposal about health care and saying on occasion that public options aren’t all that important is doing a disservice to the Barack Obama that I first met who was an ardent single-payer enthusiast himself.”

Conyers’ long standing proposal, Medicare for All, was given no consideration or even a hearing by the White House despite appeals from loyal supporters and his doctors. And Conyers noted that the reforms now before the Senate and endorsed by Obama would not begin until 2014. “Many of the people we are trying to help will be dead by then,” said Conyers.

His frustration was shared not only among liberals and progressives, but among independents and younger voters who seem to have lost enthusiasm for Obama as his drive for health care reform has become mangled in the sausage-making machine called Congress.

Politico reported last month that “mounting evidence that independent voters have soured on the Democrats is prompting debate among party officials about what rhetorical and substantive changes are needed to halt the damage.”

The story quoted Michael Dimock, a pollster with Pew Research, who found that Democrats are suffering for “their inability to move the ball on key agenda items such as health care...the public wants to see action. I’m not sure words are going to help Democrats. They’ve got to achieve some success.”

To be sure, Obama’s early actions and the $787 billion stimulus have, for the time being, averted deeper financial disaster. Original Medicare and Social Security are safe for the next three years. He has reversed the stiff-necked, anti-government conservatism of the Bush years. Washington, where I’ve lived, is more relaxed and open.

The president is a hit everywhere he goes overseas. The U.S. is about to hold talks with North Korea, has engaged in dialogue with Iran and re-engaged with European and Asian allies and Africa. An opening to Cuba is in sight.

The U.S. has sent a delegate to the United Nations war crimes court in The Hague, which Washington has boycotted for years. Torture has ended. And the administration is returning to the rule of law in detaining and prosecuting accused terrorists, although they can still be held without recourse and some will be tried by military tribunals.

But there is a political truism in the song: “What have you done for me lately.” And because most, if not all politics is local, civil libertarians want to know, why can’t Obama keep his pledge, made on his first day in office, to close the prison at Guantanamo? Can he not tell, order, his subordinates: Get it done? And what’s holding up his promise to end the military’s “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy towards gays and lesbians? Isn’t Obama the commander-in-chief?

More immediately, while the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) has helped make Wall Street whole, no one has moved to restore the restrictions of the New Deal law, Glass-Steagall, that for 75 years kept the banking and investment wolves at bay. And Democrats have still been unable to restore the regulation of derivatives and other exotic instruments. Why not? Because both these regulatory pillars were brought down ten years ago by men who are now Obama’s economic advisers. And neither the president or the leading liberal Democrats dealing with these issues have moved forcefully to restore the regulations.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D., Oregon) told The Huffington Post, “It is pretty embarrassing for a Democratic administration and a Democratic congress to be identified with total attention to Wall Street and nothing for main street and jobs.”

The stimulus – which was gutted by conservative Democrats in the Senate – has not created the promised 640,000 jobs; that turned out to be a mirage that has embarrassed Democrats. And on November 19, an angry group of Congressional Black Caucus members, ten of whom are on the House Financial Services Committee, blocked the Committee’s scheduled vote on (weak) financial regulation to protest what they believe is the lack of attention being paid by the White House to the immediate economic crises – official unemployment at 10.2 percent; real unemployment at 17 percent with no relief in sight; one in ten households behind on mortgage payments.

One can blame much of the lethargy on the insane partisanship in Congress and the ideological splits within the Democrats. But the president has not yet begun to fight, to assert the leadership he promised he’d provide. Perhaps we’ll see that when the health care issue is behind him.

Worried that they’ve been unresponsive because of their preoccupation with health care, House and Senate leaders will belatedly work on a jobs bill for Christmas, although no one knows what will be in it or where the money will come from. And when you don’t know what else to do, you call for a forum on jobs, which was held this week.

After all the talk, I would hope for a new WPA to rebuild rutted roads, rotted bridges and decaying cities. But that’s because I’m old enough to have memory of the Roosevelt years.

Need help on an issue? Write saulfriedmanATcomcastDOTnet.


Comments

Barack Obama has not yet begun to fight. Really. He hasn't begun to fight.

As one who saw Mr Obama as a rock star without the substance of experience, and therefore a backer of Ms Clinton, I find your statement, "Obama has depended on stirring rhetoric rather than hands-on leadership." all too true. He should have been a preacher.

Pres Obama should have the current healthcare reform bills scrapped and start afresh with single-payer bills - single-payer being the only type of reform that makes sense.

I find myself silently begging Obama, "Please don't screw this up, please don't screw this up," as this first year closes. We knew he would be blooded; we knew he would need our support. It makes me anxious to see the Left snarling at him, too; there are no winners in a dog fight. It also makes me anxious to see real healthcare reform be whittled into oblivion.

Not only Congress, but also WE are the sausage-making machine grinding at this Administration. We Democrats and Liberals are not going to get another shot at national leadership in 2012 by abandoning our man in 2010. What can we do to encourage and support without being part of the mangling? Otherwise, we won't get another chance until 2016.

What do Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, Bill Clinton & Barrack Obama have in common? They came to believe in their own publicity. They believe what their publicists, campaign managers and assorted spin doctors have said or wrote about them. The truth is that they are ( obviously) mere mortals and subject to the faults and weaknesses we all experience at one time or another. They eat, love and will die - just like us and their waste products smell bad too.
Unfortunately many of us believed the Obama press releases and spin as much as he did and we thought he would deliver as promised but it turns out he's just another politician. Like his predecessor, Bill "Slick Willy" Clinton. An honest politician? That's an oxymoron.

As President Obama faces challenges, he leaves them without resolution. We cannot accept this behavior especially when we HOPEd for so much.

It is unfortunate that he has been upsetting the public regarding HealthCare Reform, and I agree that if this is not resolved soon, it will only be more to deal with later on. For The People- we thought he could do it (maybe he still can: HOPE...)

Obama is very intelligent and he says the right things in his speeches indicating that he is fully aware of what needs to be done. He seems to be hampered by his obsession of have a non partisanship administration. His "Can't we all just get along?" hope seems to hamper any real leadership. I hope he gets tough soon because the pit bulls are nipping at his ankles and will soon have a firm grip on his legs if he doesn't learn to fight dirty. Mr. Nice Guy can't win when he is against the bullies that pull no punches and will do or say anything to stop him.

Nodding in agreement.

I thought that whoever won the election wouldn't be able to get much done given the can of worms the Pres. would be handed. Too much, too huge. It'll take a while and can we hang in there long enough.

Can anyone name one campaign promise he has honoured in completion/practice and not future projected or whittled and temporized?
Frankly, he scares me.

webwisewoman: I was writing at the beginning of July that we had to evaluate whether what we were seeing from Obama was betrayal or failure. But I would urge you and everyone else to consider that Obama's administration does have some accomplishments, listed here.

Not to say we should not ask for better ...

I believe I mentioned as many of his accomplishments as I had room for. I didn't mention (because it hadn't happened yet) that we're wading further into the big muddy of Afghanistan..Just as LBJ's great accomplishments were almost negated by Vietnam, so could all those by Obama listed by janinsanfran. What a Shame it would be. What a shame.

What a fix! Thank you Mr. Friedman, for your wisdom and perspective. Your sanity is much appreciated.

Obama was not my first choice as the Democratic Party nominee, but I fully supported him once he became the candidate, especially considering the alternatives. I thought his rhetoric to be refreshing and could only hope he would be as effective in action as he was in talking about what he would do. I was not so naive as to believe every intent any candidate spouts would realistically be enacted.

I resented then any inference my support was because I mindlessly elevated him to celebrity-type worshiping status that so corrupts our society today, any more than I ever have anyone else whose words I appreciate (as one former long term Democratic Party supporter friend intimated.)

I had reservations then about his ability/willingness to follow through with required actions to support his words. I perceive he has not taken strong positions on important issues to date. I interpret this as a weakness that has proven to be an even greater disappointment than I imagined.

I think he is too far down on the opposite end of the spectrum from his predecessor who erroneously believed his obstinate positions defying reason were a sign of strength.

I was doubtful about meaningful health care reform being enacted when I heard Sen. Edw. Kennedy's medical diagnosis. I thought there was little likelihood the Senator would be able to be the strong active driver needed to establish truly effective reform this President would need.

I do value Obama's accomplishments toward redeeming our nation's standing with much of the rest of the world based on his words and behavior. At least he isn't a constant embarrassment unlike his predecessor. I respect that he does welcome issues debate which any intelligent leader should do.

Unfortunately, on domestic issues I'm left with a view to this point in time that our current President has been too busy trying to be all things to everybody. He often compromises with little or no effort to pursue policies he reportedly previously supported. Some of those policy positions were the very reason for which so many of us of independent inclination voted for him.

Presidents are generally only as good as the people with whom they surround themselves. I have grave reservations about many Presidential appointees dedication to the peoples best interests versus that of corporations, financial entities. I've had great expectations that their power grip would be weakened as is desperately needed for this nation's sake -- especially for our middle class to survive.

You've certainly zeroed in on many of my concerns, Saul, though I've hesitated to be more outspoken lest I provide ammunition to those determined to destroy his Presidency at all cost in preference to directing their energies to solving our nation's problems. I certainly don't want a ricochet next election time to anything remotely like the governing powers that prevailed before President Obama.

To clarify: In the final sentence of the paragraph preceding the final one, the reference to the "power grip" that needs to be weakened is that of "corporations and financial entities."

Why is President Obama (not Mister but President) now the target for the media as well as the Republican Party? Why is it that one senator can stop an emergency session of the legislative body when our elected President asked for one, or can hold a bill from passing out of his committee because he doesn't agree with it, or can delay the work of the people by being obstrutive instead of constuctive? Why is it that Democrats and Republicans don't just do their job and serve the American people and not their party line? Let us be fair. If President Obama had the support of even five Republicans, I would feel better about their stance just as I would feel better if Democrats stood by their views instead of agreeing to vote yesor no when their home states get enough entitlements added to the bill to soothe their conscience.

When will the American people get the representation they have elected these people to provide for them? The ones who have medical insurance and can pay their deductibles and copays, who do not have to choose whether to buy medicine or food, who have agreed to represent the people in their state-not their party. Why doesn't the "media" talk about the legislators who are making life hard for all of us because they are not doing what they were elected to do; serve the American People, put our needs first, and accept the President we elected whether they like him of not.

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