I voted for Barack Obama in the presidential election – a vote that was predicated on the policy positions he enunciated as well as his charisma and his life history.

The criticisms leveled at him by Republicans that he lacked the experience with a resume that was just too thin to be president had merit but after the disastrous presidency of George W Bush and a Republican controlled Congress that went along with all of W’s hare-brained ideas, I felt that anything would be better than what we had gone through for the prior eight years. It was a point of view that gathered additional reinforcement after John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his nominee for vice president – someone singularly unqualified to be president – although I liked McCain himself and felt that he could have been a good president.

Fast forward one year and I will admit to my mounting disappointment at Obama’s performance. As I look back at his accomplishments over the past year I must say that he has accomplished remarkably little. His greatest accomplishment has been in reversing the hostility with which the US was regarded in much of the world under Bush with his bullying tactics and his “my way or the highway” attitude.

Obama recently, in an interview with Oprah, gave himself a solid B+ in terms of his performance during his first year in office. I think he is being overly generous – I would give him an “I” or “incomplete”. Most of his major initiatives have been either stuck in Congress or have been compromised to a point where it bears no resemblance to what Obama said that he wanted to accomplish. This holds true whether it is climate/global warming, reform of the financial system and now with healthcare reform. I am not even going to cite the economy and the jobless rate given that Obama inherited a gargantuan mess with a financial system that was in a state of near meltdown and he has had only one year to undo the damage that he inherited.

All of this is despite having a sizable majority in the House and filibuster proof majority in the Senate. The argument that the filibuster proof majority is just in theory does not really hold merit. In a recent article a blogger, John Aravosis, articulated my views, on this issue quite succinctly in these excerpts. He said:

I’ve heard people say that it’s not fair to criticize the Democrats for botching health care reform because the Democrats never truly had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Sure, they have 60 votes in principle, the argument goes, but with Lieberman, Nelson, Landrieu, and Bayh counted as four of those votes, it’s not really a solid 60.

Perhaps. But then how was George Bush so effective in passing legislation during his presidency when he never had more than 55 Republicans in the Senate? In fact, during Bush’s most effective years, from 2001 to 2005, the GOP had a grand total of 50, and then 51, Senators. The slimmest margin possible.

And look at what George Bush was able to accomplish in the Congress with fewer Senators than the Democrats have today:

– John Ashcroft nomination
– Iraq war resolution
– Repeated Iraq funding resolutions
– 2001 & 2003 tax cuts
– Patriot Act
– Alito
– John Roberts
– Medicare Part D

He goes on to say:

So what’s the difference? Why with 60 votes are Democrats so ineffective, but with 50 votes Republicans excel?

What the GOP lacked in numbers, they made up for in backbone, cunning and leadership. Say what you will about George Bush, he wasn’t afraid of a fight. If anything, the Bush administration, and the Republicans in Congress, seemed to relish taking on Democrats, and seeing just how far they could get Democratic members of Congress to cave on their promises and their principles. Hell, even Senator Barack Obama, who once famously promised to lead a filibuster against the FISA domestic eavesdropping bill, suddenly changed his mind and actually voted for the legislation. Such is the power of a president and a congressional leadership with balls and smarts.

How did they do it? Bush was willing to use his bully pulpit to create an environment in which the opposition party feared taking him on, feared challenging his agenda, lest they be seen as unpatriotic and extreme. By going public, early and often, with his beliefs, Bush was able to fracture the Democratic opposition (and any potential dissent in his own party) and forestall any effort to mount a filibuster against the most important items in his agenda.

It’s not about the votes, people. It’s about leadership. The current occupant of the White House doesn’t like to fight, and the leadership in Congress has never been as good at their jobs, at marshaling their own party, as the Republicans were when they were in the majority.

As we witness the healthcare reform legislation being whittled down to something that, as Howard Dean says, is nothing more than another hand-out to the insurance industry Dean’s point that the country would be better off just killing the existing healthcare reform proposals and starting all over again has merit rather than passing a piece of legislation that is certainly not health care reform. The lack of leadership by Obama on this issue has been quite striking. I recall listening to several Democratic legislators who have said at various times that there is no “Obama plan” when it comes to healthcare reform – because he has never clearly enunciated the minimum that he will accept as part of healthcare reform except in the broadest of terms.

I can’t help but think back on Lyndon Johnson’s accomplishments in the areas of Medicare, civil rights, voting rights and other major pieces of social legislation. It was his knowledge of the Senate, his ability to twist arms and his taking the lead that enabled him to pass major pieces of legislation in an environment that was just as hostile as Obama faces. Just imagine passing civil rights and voting rights legislation in the sixties when Jim Crow was regarded as the norm in the South. The Democratic majority in the Senate included many senators from the south who were known as the “boll weevils” – and were even more conservative and right-wing than are today’s Democratic legislators from the south. I seriously doubt that Obama would have been able to accomplish any of the social legislation that Johnson did with his hands-off style and unwillingness to draw a line in the sand.

I have no regrets about voting for Obama/Biden as opposed to McCain/Palin for the reasons that I have enunciated – but I must confess that I wonder whether Hillary Clinton would have been more effective and displayed greater leadership than Obama has done to date.

I am more ambivalent about Obama’s decision to increase the troop strength in Afghanistan – it is a “no win” situation for him – though the photo-shopped image below does provide a graphic reminder of the risks that Obama faces with his decision to escalate the US involvement in an unwinnable war.

I have written the above more with a sense of sadness than anger. My ardent hope is that Obama will adopt a more aggressive and effective leadership style as opposed to his rather detached, professorial and laid-back approach. I really see a danger that come 2012 we could have a well-financed and motivated right-wing seizing control of the White House and Congress especially if the economy remains in the doldrums.

5 Responses to “Buyer’s remorse or unrealistic expectations?”

  1. Vivek says:

    One of my favourite journalists – Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone has views and articles on Obama pretty similar to your own. His irreverent style makes for a pretty entertaining read.
    Definitely not your typical NY Times/Washington Post journalist!
    Here is his blog page – http://trueslant.com/matttaibbi/

  2. TJ says:

    I have heard Matt Taibbi on TV but was not familiar with his blog. I certainly see your point about the irreverent style – and he clearly does not like David Brooks:)

    Vivek, the irony about the health care reform bill just passed by the Senate is that if it were not for the fact that the Republicans don’t want to give Obama a victory on this issue, the Senate bill is pretty close to the type of legislation that the Republicans would have sought to pass.

    I recently saw some quotes by prominent Republicans when the Medicare legislation was passed in 1965 – a program that they totally embrace today. They basically said the same thing about Medicare that they now say about the Obama’s health care reform ie it is socialism, too much governmental involvement, etc.

  3. Vivek says:

    “pretty close to the type of legislation that the Republicans would have sought to pass”…I recall this article by Krugman earlier this year about Nixon’s proposal for healthcare reform being more progressive than Obama’s!

  4. TJ says:

    I had not seen the Krugman article before but I had read elsewhere that Nixon had sought Ted Kennedy’s backing for healthcare reform and TK did not feel that Nixon had gone far enough – but as Krugman points out Nixon’s proposal was more far-reaching than the Senate version that the Democrats passed with such difficulty.

    So when people say that TK would have supported the Senate’s plan one must wonder if that is so – OTOH, perhaps he would have if he viewed healthcare reform as an incremental process.

  5. The citizens of Gardner, KS are currently working to recall two members of their City Council. The recall is tied up in the courts at the moment, but it should go to a vote in March of 2010.

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