Saturday, July 11, 2009

Does Obama Have What It Takes?

This morning, I have been reading an article by Eleanor Clift in Newsweek that wonders, candidly, if Barack Obama is up to the job of being president.

Clift, for those who don't know, is hardly a conservative critic. She leans so far to the left that, during the Clinton administration, she was nicknamed "Eleanor Rodham Clifton" because of her rigid defense of the former first lady and now secretary of state.

When she complains about "Obama's Zen–like avoidance of confrontation," he needs to pay attention.

I've written about the same thing, but I used different words. Back in the days when the economic stimulus package was being debated in Congress, I wrote about Obama's misguided efforts to achieve bipartisanship. Obama and the Democrats in Congress nevertheless permitted so many concessions and so many compromises that we were left with an expensive, pork–laden package that has been ineffective in dealing with the urgent problems that needed to be addressed.

Sure, it has provisions that are aimed at long–term goals, and we won't see the benefits of those efforts for years. But the package has done virtually nothing to address the immediate problems that are strangling Americans. It may have slowed the rate of job losses, but it hasn't shown any sign of reversing that ominous trend. We're still losing hundreds of thousands of jobs each month when (taking into account population growth) we need to add at least 100,000 jobs each month just to stay even, and the current 9.5% unemployment rate is well above the 8% rate Obama and the Democrats said would be the plateau when they passed the stimulus package.

Clift says Obama needs to "get in touch with his inner LBJ," who was known for bullying and cajoling and threatening lawmakers to get his way by using "the treatment," a tactic Lyndon Johnson honed in his years as majority leader in the Senate, "but so far the signs don't look good."

I don't know if Obama has an aversion to criticism or what, but more than one promising presidency has been shot down by an irrational desire to stay on everyone's good side. That simply isn't possible in politics.

In case you haven't noticed it, Obama is a polarizing figure. He remains personally popular — but voters make a distinction between liking the president and liking his policies. Presidents Reagan and Clinton served two full terms in the White House and, despite leaving the presidency with high personal popularity, were loathed and despised by their opponents, largely (but not exclusively) on the basis of their political philosophies.

It's also worth pointing out that, although both Reagan and Clinton went on to win second terms, they suffered setbacks in their first midterm elections — in Reagan's case because of mounting unemployment. Remember his pleas to a chastened public to "stay the course?"

And, of course, in Clinton's case, the backlash was so severe that the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades.

Voters haven't been as charitable when asked about Obama's policies as they have been when asked about the president himself. Clift observes that Obama's objectives are in danger, and that there is a short window of opportunity for him.

"With unemployment climbing and 12,000 people a day losing health insurance, Obama cannot allow universal health care to slip away yet again," she writes. "If a Democratic president with commanding majorities in both the Senate and House can't make it happen this Congress, the Democrats will take a hit in the 2010 congressional election, and the losses will be deserved."

This is Obama's "LBJ moment," Clift writes. And the window is still open for him. But she observes that the "steadily increasing number of people without jobs and health insurance is scary and their cry for change will only grow louder. The true unemployment rate is probably twice what the government records as people get discouraged and fall from the statistics."

That is the reality. It is what Obama and the Democrats were elected to do something about.

Interesting, isn't it, that Clift uses the word "change?" Last year, a majority of Americans responded favorably to the slogan "change we can believe in," but many are finding it harder to believe in change now.

The sniping between the parties hasn't changed. What's changed is which party is in the majority. When Republicans were in the majority, they liked to ridicule the Clintons and Al Gore. Today, with the Democrats in the majority, they enjoy doing the same thing to George W. Bush and Sarah Palin.

When the stimulus package was passed in February, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson said those who hammered out the congressional compromise should be called "the jobs squad" and Obama, when signing the legislation, said it "mark[s] the beginning of the end — the beginning of what we need to do to create jobs for Americans scrambling in the wake of layoffs; to provide relief for families worried they won't be able to pay next month's bills; and to set our economy on a firmer foundation."

There seems to be — to put it mildly — a disconnect between the rhetoric of February and the reality of summer.

As Clift urges, Obama must spend his political capital. She acknowledges that "Obama is on pace to exceed Clinton and even LBJ in getting Congress to vote his way, in part by carefully picking his fights."

And she observes that "[v]ictory born of caution falls short of expectations but beats defeat any day."

That's true. But there is a fine art in being an effective president. Can Obama learn it in time?

Or is this the best you can hope for when a community organizer is elected president?

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