Obama’s Wild Ride

The two or three months following the inauguration were a magic time in Washington; the town was euphoric; you could smell expectation in the air like the roses in the White House garden. There was apprehension, too, among “the lobbyists and the wealthiest few” who have “run Washington for too long,” as Obama used to say in his campaign, even as he promised to smite them.
Then the new administration launched what the New York Times recently called its “do-everything-at-once” strategy; hard boiled, shrewder Washington operators emerged from under their beds, breathing sighs of relief; there would be no crusade against the capital’s vested interests, after all.
The appointment of some of those “wealthiest few” to plum ambassadorial jobs in grateful thanks for hefty campaign contributions is redolent of the old coziness that Obama used to denounce. True, it’s unlikely that anyone outside the Beltway cares about diplomatic appointments; but in Washington the large crop of well-heeled political appointees sent a message that Obama’s change was still hidebound by the old political priorities. Foreign ambassadors raised a cynical eyebrow, adjusting their assessments of the new administration accordingly.
What has undermined Obama’s popularity is his failure to score an early success and then to market it with the same skill and dexterity that characterized his successful election campaign. The return of giant bonuses and salaries for top Wall Street executives of major financial institutions that have been rescued by American taxpayers, combined with still growing unemployment, a stimulus plan that has failed to stimulate, an unpredictable stock market, and health reform mired in partisan debate are not calculated to produce a buoyant public mood.
Commentators who a few months ago were full of praise for Obama, now form a chorus of doomsayers. The op-ed page of the Washington Post and the New York Times are beginning to sound like the Wall Street Journal. Frank Rich recently warned in the Times of a drift “towards disillusionment among some of the president’s supporters, and not merely those on the left.” The Post quoted a real estate agent who seemed to capture the general mood. “Nothing’s changed for the common guy,” she complained. “I feel like I’ve been punked.” Billions of dollars were lavished on the banks in bailouts, she said, yet they still “act like they’re broke.” At least towards their customers.
If there’s anyone left in the Obama defensive line they will no doubt accuse the president’s critics of rushing to judgment. From his first day in office the president was forced to multitask on a daunting array of problems with long, tangled histories for which there was no quick fix.
His administration has begun reform efforts to step up the government’s vigilance over banks and other financial institutions, but the new rules will not be finished until some time next year – which in the Twitter and Blackberry age is not soon enough. Government economists are now sounding cautiously optimistic on the economy, which they say is showing signs of an early turnaround. Even so, it will be some time before any improvement – assuming it continues – turns into good news for the country’s six million jobless and those in part-time work who are seeking full-time employment.
U.S. foreign policy got a much-needed lift from Obama’s election and his subsequent appointment of his campaign opponent Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Suddenly the U.S. was being seen in a new and – in some regions – more favorable light, reversing some of the rabid anti-Americanism of the Bush years. In many European states polls show Obama enjoying greater popularity than the leadership of that particular country. The ball is occasionally dropped – or seems to be – as when Obama limited his first African trip as president to Ghana. When South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya expressed strong disappointment at being left out of the itinerary, a marathon tour was set up for Clinton. Her outspoken criticism of government corruption in Nigeria and Kenya emerged as a possible reason why Obama avoided a visit to both countries.
Then there were the mixed signals to Moscow, with Obama making nice to President Dmitry Medvedev, only to be followed a couple of weeks later by Vice President Joe Biden’s scathing characterization of Russia as almost a failed state with a dwindling population and an economy dangerously dependent on the vagaries of the oil market. Nobody ever explained that one.
Many commentators see Afghanistan, not his domestic agenda, as the ultimate test of political survival. Will it turn out to be Obama’s nemesis, as Vietnam had been for Lyndon Johnson? In August, the president’s contention that Afghanistan was “a war of necessity” was challenged by Richard N. Haas, head of the Council on Foreign Relations and former head of policy planning at the State Department, in the run-up to the Iraq war. Afghanistan was “a war of choice, not of necessity,” and one he feared that America would learn to regret, Haas wrote in a New York Times op-ed. As U.S. casualties increase as a result of more troops, and a deeper involvement, half of Americans are already turning against the war.
But nothing cries louder for correction, in the view of many, than the new administration’s handling of health care reform – and nothing demonstrates better how hard it is for a relative newcomer to charge at Washington’s political windmills and not end up with a broken lance. Lobbyists are thick on the ground in the complex negotiations for a satisfactory health bill, and there is no way to exclude them.
With a Democratic president in the White House and Democrats controlling both houses of the Congress, Republicans don’t have the votes to kill a final bill; you’d have thought the going would be a lot smoother than it is.
But even after nine months in office Obama and his team are still better at campaign style defense than offense: starting with the boss. Faced with some of the most poisonous, obscurantist right wing rhetoric ever heard in Washington, “the president recoils from confrontation, even with those who are out to destroy him,” says Robert Kuttner, author of the recent book Obama’s Challenge. Osama’s “propensity for consensus is hard-wired,” Kuttner says. Post columnist Eugene Robinson wants Obama to “tell Congress and the American public, clearly and forcibly, what has to be done, and why. Take control of the debate. Consult less and insist more.”
To explain the gap between public expectations and the administration’s more modest objectives, columnists and commentators are fond of trotting out the old bromide attributed to Otto von Bismark about politics being the art of the possible. But Bismark’s quote goes on: “The attainable [is] the art of the next best.” Obama shouldn’t settle for that.

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