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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Is President Obama a “Lightweight”?

When I was a supporter of Hillary Clinton, I said to my spouse:  “this guy Obama seems like a lightweight.  I’m not sure he has what it takes to be a strong President.”  I stuck with Hillary until almost the end when I switched my support to Obama because her campaign was making too many wrong moves.  I thought he might be “ the one” after all.  After the latest debacle surrounding the debt ceiling, and his “compromises” with Republicans over debt reduction and spending cuts, I have to ask again, is he a lightweight?  (Even if he is,  I’m glad he made history -- we needed that!).

On the one hand, the evidence points to a verdict that the President is indeed a lightweight.  Let me count the ways:

1)    He had little experience with governing.  Yes, he was an Illinois State Senator for three terms.  Yes, he served in the US Senate from 2004 to 2009.  Yes, he worked as a lawyer and a professor and a community organizer.  But, he had little experience as an Executive who had to confront challenges, mobilize people to address those challenges, and then carry through on implementing concepts, programs, policies, etc., to meet those challenges.  Maybe that’s why Senators have such a hard time becoming President.  Governing is a whole lot different than campaigning!

2)    He veered from the obvious path of needing to deal with jobs and housing to dealing with health care.  A huge mistake that still has not been rectified.

3)    Then he failed to lead the way on health care.  His extreme caution in not producing a carefully thought-out plan for health care plus his insistence that Congress construct the plan(s), led to a debacle over that summer.  The lack of a clear plan to be discussed and debated helped lead to the distortions that Republicans and Tea Partiers put forth into the minds of the electorate by cherry-picking from various bills that were then on the table. 

    What’s worse is that he didn’t learn from this mistake.  Instead, he did the same thing with the 2012 budget plan and with the latest debt-reduction plan.  He let Paul Ryan lead the way, instead of pushing his own agenda.  He let the Republicans define the debate by insisting on spending cuts before the debt ceiling could be raised.  He let the Congress do the heavy-lifting, and that meant that the Tea Partiers took over the debate and the initiative.  Strong Presidents propose plans and legislation, and then they work with Congress to influence the outcome.

4)    He failed to stand-up for the most progressive part of the health care plan which was the public option, which he touted and then abandoned when the pressure from the Right, and from Democrat defectors got too hot.  This was the first indication for many progressives that he was not the strong advocate we thought he was.  This decision diluted the bill so much that both the positive and negative parts that remained could not get a fair hearing.  The public favored a public option throughout the debate simply because so many needed it, and the President abandoned them in the name of compromise.  “Capitulation” would be a more accurate term, and this was the beginning demonstration of this very trait.

5)    The “Stimulus Package” was ill-advised in that it did not address strongly enough the needs for help with housing and jobs.  It was characterized as helping Wall Street and not Main Street.  Obama did not take the opportunity to explain thoroughly what the plan was meant to accomplish, nor what it was achieving.  For many, it did not appear that the stimulus package was strong enough; it needed even greater funding to address the prevalent problems that people were facing.  It was also not transparent: the administration failed to get the provisions out to the people; it was even difficult to find it online.  Not only was the initial phase ill-explained, but the accomplishments were almost ignored.  There should have been a cadre within the White House with no other mission than to explain what was happening with that legislation, and to keep the public up-to-date on it.

6)    From 2009 through 2010, the President failed to use the majority in the House and Senate to his advantage. The Democratic Caucus was contentious and scrambled, as usual, and the need for strong leadership in this regard was practically ignored.  Would Lyndon Johnson have allowed maverick Democrats to get away with defying him on major issues, like health care or the Stimulus?  You better believe he would not.  He would have brow-beat them over the phone or in his office until they whimpered. Would Harry Truman have given in to the idea that the Generals should tell him what to do in either Iraq or Afghanistan?  Remember General MacArthur?  He tried to tell old Harry what to do about China and he got fired!  Obama failed to use the Democratic majority to pass strong legislation on housing, health care, and jobs, and waited until the lame duck session in late 2010 to push Congress a bit! Guess what? It was definitely too late!

7)    The President has been characterized as “Bush Lite”.  
--carried out the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan (with a surge for the latter as Bush did for the former)
--threw the military at the problem of violence against protestors in Libya just as Bush did with Iraq (to get Hussein).  
--failed to address the “Arab Spring” just as Bush ignored the Palestinian problem
--carried through the stimulus for Wall Street and corporations from the Bush administration instead of moving ahead on his own to ensure that main street got substantial help
--just as Bush appointed Henry Paulson, former CEO of Goldman Sachs, to be his Treasury Secretary, so Obama appointed Timothy Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, to be his Treasury Secretary.  Both were strongly connected to Wall Street and both continued an emphasis on big business as the recipients of government largesse, known as “corporate welfare”.
--Obama continued the Bush approach to terrorism by extending the some adverse parts of the Patriot Act
--has done nothing about abandoning Leave No Child Behind Act
--actually approved more domestic oil drilling, but no definitive legislation to get us off foreign oil
--responded slowly to the oil leak in the Gulf just as Bush did to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina
--worst of all, Obama has become Bush Lite, or at least Republican-like, in his attitude toward cutting discretionary spending and debt reduction, instead of investment and use of government to establish jobs

Does all this mean that Progressives should abandon President Obama in 2012?  It does not.  First of all, he has done many good things, among them: 

-He got Osama bin laden!
-Saved the collapse of the American automotive industry by making GM restructure before bailing them out, and putting incentive money to help the industry
-$789 billion economic stimulus plan and a housing rescue plan
-Appointed the nation's first Chief Technology Officer
-Extended Benefits to same-sex partners of Federal employees
-Expanded hate crime law to include sexual orientation through the Hate Crimes Prevention Act
-Added 4.6 Billion USD to the Veterans Administration budget to recruit and retain more mental health professionals
-Expanded the SCHIP program to cover health care for 4 million more children
-Instituted enforcement for equal pay for women
-Removed restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research
-Tax cuts for up to 3.5 million small businesses to help pay for employee health care coverage
-Health Care Reform Bill, preventing insurance companies from denying insurance because of pre-existing condition
(Ninety more Obama administration accomplishments, in brief, can be found at www.3chicspolitico.com) 

Secondly, the immediate alternative is deadly.  The Republicans and Tea Partiers are on a path of destruction with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in their sights.  But make no mistake, they are after much more than that.  They want to dismantle unions as well as the federal government; they want to cut out all vestiges of the New Deal, the Great Society, and all special programs that aid the poor and disabled beyond the three mentioned above: the WIC program, heat subsidies, food stamps, SSI and, of course, Obama’s health care plan.  And these are just a few examples; there are many more.  They won’t tell you what they are, but their strategy with cuts and caps is to starve them to death where they can’t just eliminate them!

They are  hell-bent on reducing the size of government.  But that is a shibboleth for returning as much power as possible to the states, and making national government impotent.  Take Ryan’s plan for Medicaid.  Devolving it to the States is nothing more than a way to gut it, because states can’t afford the costs to keep it solvent and effective for the many children and persons with disabling conditions that it is meant to serve. 

Is there another alternative?  Not really, unless the Democratic Party wants to risk defeat by having a primary that will exhaust needed funds for a national election, and a divided party that won’t be able to win. 

Barack Obama remains as our only hope, but he needs to demonstrate a change from lightweight to stout.  He needs to present a vision for the next four years, for this decade, and for the foreseeable future.  He needs to become what the Constitution intended: not a compromiser or capitulator, but a co-equal partner in the governing of this country.  If Congress (or the Judiciary, for that matter) has gotten it wrong, he must stand up and confront them as a co-equal.  In fact, his penchant for not confronting his power-rivals is his worst trait, for he betrays the uniqueness of our Constitution: its checks and balances.  Compromise is not necessarily what the Constitution always calls for, and I disagree that that is the only outcome that the framers aimed for.  It is not.  The Constitution granted certain powers to each branch of our government, and power is not a dirty word.  Power must be exercised by each branch in an appropriate and effective manner, and the bland use of the same, or the reluctant use of the same, is as dangerous as its overuse or its abuse.

Above all, Barack Obama, the constitutional law professor, must indicate how he will use his power and authority in his second term to the people’s advantage, or he will surely be the one-term President that the right-wing “destroyers” wish him to be.  Need some guidance, Mr. President?  You could do worse than taking the Progressive Caucus’s 2012 budget proposal (The People‘s Budget), as a model for action.

[for more on outlines for action, see the blog for July 31st at www.citizenvox.org/2011/07/31/by-popular-demand-robert-weissman-debt-ceiling-irrationality/> 
and my Blog for April 10, 2010]