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GRAY MATTERS: Obama So Far

Posted Dec 05 2009 2:30am
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.

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