Thursday, 21 January 2010
It doesn't seem like too long ago that Obama won an historic election that symbolised a triumph of people power over the the ignorance and fear tactics that characterised the last administration, unanimously derided as one of the all time worst, even by Republicans. There was a lot of hope for a new beginning for America, and amongst many including myself, hope that the Republican party would take this as a sign that a major shift in party ideology was required to get back into power.
But 2009 was a long year, one which appears to be the starting point for a whole new era in politics. Now we look back at it and analyse the significant talking points.
In today's climate of media sensationalism and partisan "opinion journalism" it is hard for the public to get a fair and balanced view of politics, and that goes for people on both sides of the aisle. If you look at the New York Times, or Daily KOS, you'll see reports of how Obama is the best thing to ever happen to this country, and the best modern President of all time. If you look at Fox News or the Wall Street Journal, you'll see him labeled a dangerous failure and a terrorist who is bankrupting the nation. Frankly both points of view are equally asinine. In fact, many of the mainstream networks, amidst a process of dumbing down in order to compete for the lowest common denominator viewers, have been conducting first year reviews with all the histrionic insight that befits the whores of the entertainment news industry.
That being said, more measured analysis of what, for better or for worse, is sure to be a defining year for the new decade in politics can be found from more legitimate and intellectual sources of opinion such as the Financial Times, the Economist, the Week and of course the non-partisan CQ Politics.
Here we will attempt to give our own level headed, unbiased and ultimately fact based interpretation of the year.
I will begin by getting my conclusion out of the way, and then tell you why I have come to that conclusion. Overall I think it's hard not to concede that Barack Obama has made a decent start to his first term, relatively speaking, but he is still nowhere near achieving all the promise that was expected of him.
First the legislation. Obama got off to a quick start by lifting the ban on stem cell research funding, a massive boost for scientific progress, not just in America but all over the world. He followed this up with the Fair Pay Act of 2009, a massive success for social policy which amends the civil rights act with a mandate for non discriminatory pay in the work place.
The big one, of course, is the stimulus. It has proven to be fairly controversial, mainly among people who don't know what's in it, but this is a fantastic piece of legislation. What makes it such a success is that it is so wide reaching, with investments in green technology and education, to transport and jobs, and of course, lots and lots of tax cuts for 98.6% of Americans. This wide ranging nature means that even if Obama is unable to get any more of his ambitious agenda out before 2012, the benefits of this one bill will likely be enough to get reelected, assuming it works as projected by the non partisan CBO.
Without a doubt though, the economy is the measure by which Obama will be judged. Right now the markets have recovered, but jobs have only stabilised. Economists agree though that indicators are good and the recovery is coming along nicely, certainly on a similar timescale compared to recessions during the Reagan and Clinton Presidency. Most agree that had the stimulus not been passed we would be in a far worse state now, likely a full on depression.
Of course the one big piece of Obama's domestic agenda which has not yet come to fruition is the big health care debate. More on that in a minute.
Obama took over in the White House and almost immediately attempted to bring a new approach to Washington. He rejected the past decade's American policy of arrogance and international defiance that has seen us become an unpopular pariah of the international community, and restored diplomacy to it's rightful place.
In retrospect, his first year is full of success in foreign policy, ironically one of his areas of lowest voter confidence during the campaign, and now one of his strongest approvals. The victories started early with Obama convincing Russia to back down from their proposed missile deployments in Kaliningrad, and followed with a hugely successful goodwill tour of the Middle East. Throughout it all Obama has stepped up with fierce rhetoric pushing for nuclear disarmament and reaffirming America's support of the UN and International law, signing the order to close Guantanamo Bay and banning torture, which had been unfathomably legalised for the first time in a hundred years under the Bush administration.
And of course, there was the strangely considered approach with which Obama made his strategic decision in Afghanistan, including forming an exit strategy before committing troops. It is exactly this approach that was missing from the catastrophic military blunders of the Bush administration, and has earned the President rave reviews from both sides of the aisle.
The world responded with massive boosts in approval ratings, some almost doubling in the space of a few months, and a Nobel Peace prize soon followed.
But it wasn't just wounds overseas that he wanted to heal, there was as much division at home between the so called liberals and conservatives in America. Indeed many conservatives will groundlessly disagree with this, but at every step of every piece of legislation his party has worked on, Obama has offered the hand of bipartisanship to the Republicans, perhaps to a fault. As he famously put it in his inaugural address, "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist". That line has pretty much summed up his early approach to the Presidency.
Unfortunately this is also the biggest mistake of his Presidency so far. Obama chose to take an old fashioned centrist position as President, sitting on the fence while congress work to formulate the legislation for his agenda. Tax cuts, escalation in Afghanistan, extension of the Bush tax cuts and support of the Patriot act, all policy points that should please conservatives. Sadly that is not the country we live in anymore.
The Republicans have settled on a policy of pure obstruction as the best way to get elected back into power. It's a clever policy if you think about it, because if the country fails to improve under Obama, he will get blamed, not the Republican caucus. It's a sad state of politics where one political party would rather see the country fail for the sake of scoring political points than actually solve any problems, especially in a time of crisis as we are in now. But this is just the story of politics in America right now, it's a sport, not a mechanism of governing the country.
What makes it worse is the disappointment and shame this brings to America. After 2008 a lot of us felt as though America had finally learned from its mistakes, had finally stood up and rejected disingenuous politics of fear. But it is clear that that is no longer the case. "Tyranny!", "Socialism!", "Fascism!" The health care bill has been called all these things, with very little justification. But this underlines the next big failing of the Obama administration, he has lost control of the narrative.
So far I have been mostly praising his accomplishments, but it is also important to criticise where he has gone wrong. He has not succeeded in bringing the country together. He has not kept control of the all important narrative, and allowed Republicans to frame the debate on most issues this year, exactly as they want (although in fairness this is probably more the fault of the weak Democrats in congress, and the incessant noise of the right wing propaganda sources like Fox, WSJ, NY Post and Washington Times). He has compromised with the Republicans far too often, who simply don't want to negotiate with him, when he should really have flexed his congressional dominance, as Bush did many times, and pushed through his agenda by any means necessary. His faith in bringing partisans together was terribly naive, and it cost him large portions of his political capita. The worst part about him not dismissing bipartisanship is that the Republican noise machine is claiming that he has anyway in order to support their calls of 'tyranny!', with some success amazingly.
During the campaign people criticised Obama for not being experienced enough, and it is this lack of experience that is showing now. He needs to see this health care debacle as a wake up call and get tough with his congress. Back in the old days, if a congress couldn't come to an agreement, the President would force them into a senate session, and keep them locked in until they came up with a compromise. This is the kind of toughness and will that Obama needs to find if he is to salvage anything from a very difficult looking 2010.
But of course the big question is on health care reform. The health care bill is a big accomplishment, if they can pass it, but it is by no means perfect. Many controversial measures which are included could easily have been made state-optional amendments, and numerous progressive wishes have been ignored in the formation of the final bill. The result is a bill that would do a lot of good if passed, but is sadly unpopular, unwieldly, full of compromises and unscrupulous deals put forward by desperate Democrats, and mishandled at every step of the process by the hilariously inept Senate majority.
Indeed in most issues Obama's major handicap has been the weakness of the Democratic party. Nancy Pelosi is a dolt, but efficient at what she does. Freshmen like Al Franken and Alan Grayson bode well for the future of the party. Other than that, they're all completely useless. Bush never had this kind of majority and his congress still pushed through partisan agenda. It's gotten to the point where there I am seriously doubting about voting Democrat in 2010. If they can't get work done, then why should I? They're just lucky I have even less affection for Republicans right now, probably true of a lot of Americans. It's a battle between ineffectual wusses on one side and irresponsible lunatics on the other.
The election of Scott Brown as Massachusetts senator is a big setback for the health reform bill, but probably not fatal. There are numerous avenues still available to push it through if they want, and indeed Brown has indicated that he is open to passing a bill, as long as it's a better bill.
People who know me know that I am not at all a partisan guy, but rather am very moderate. I never had any qualms with the GOP until the disastrous Bush administration, a dislike that has grown following their shameful obstructionism since the election of Obama. But I like Scott Brown. I wouldn't have voted for him because of his health care position, but I can see him as future Presidential material. More immediately than that though, I have been impressed by his rhetoric since winning the election. Today he attacked his own party for their shameful obstructionist agenda and pledged to get a better healthcare bill passed for Americans.
Yes, Brown is the key. Without his support, or the support of another liberal Republican like Olympia Snowe, Obama will have a very hard time passing any legislation this year. 2010 will be a bad bad year for Obama unless something changes soon.
This could all be bull, but considering Brown needs to be reelected by a liberal state in just 3 years, I doubt he'll be breaking a major promise like that. If Brown does prove to be a man of his word, this election could actually be a BIG win for Obama, who will benefit much more from passing a popular, bipartisan bill then the one he was on the verge of passing. Brown is claiming that he is an independently minded Republican who wants to push forward with positive legislation. If he comes good on this promise then he could be a very powerful ally for Obama, and the key to passing reform. I'm not ready to give him my trust just yet, but if he sticks to his word then l will happily be the first to apologise for my doubt, and give him my approval.
More crucially, this election is likely to be used as the template for future Republican success. Brown won by campaigning as a centrist Republican. If this is the direction the Republican party is moving in, at the expense of the religious hard right that has been such a destructive influence on the country, then it's a great victory for America and for progressives. People a year ago were predicting the demise of the Republican party, if this election is any indication, they may well have been right; the religious extremist Republican party of the 2000s is disappearing, get ready for the more centrist Republicans of the 2010s, a party that might even be worthy of a vote if they can truly reform themselves. Fingers crossed anyway.
So the verdict is, a good start with plenty of room for improvement. He is receiving a media firestorm of bad press at the moment, but the reality is that his approval is pretty normal for a President in his position, comparable to the likes of Clinton and Reagan, both excellent two-term Presidents. His legislative success rate meanwhile, is the best ever at 96.1%, beating the previous record set by LBJ in the 60s. You can't really have asked for much more from a first year President, and indeed few have matched it, but you can't rightly call him a success yet. When unemployment starts to go down, when the budget is balanced, when America gets much needed health reform (which right now I'd say there is a 80% chance of happening if Brown really does want to do his job, 55% if he doesn't), then we can confidently declare him to be a successful President. For now though it's just a decent start, marred by a few stutters and naivete that characterises an inexperienced politician.