Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Imperial Hubris

"Mr. Obama and the Democrats have wasted the once–in–a–lifetime opportunity handed to them in the 2008 election. They did not focus on jobs, jobs, jobs as their primary mission, and they did not call on Americans to join in a bold national effort (which would have required a great deal of shared sacrifice) to solve a wide range of very serious problems."

Bob Herbert
New York Times

At least once in every presidency, it seems that a president is said to have squandered a golden opportunity that had been given to him by the voters or fate or whatever.

More than once, for example, I have heard George W. Bush criticized for failing to use September 11 as a way to unite a divided America in a common cause. In fact, he did precisely the opposite. He exploited it for political gain. He used it to drive wedges between people, between races, between faiths.

I will always believe that Bush was a terrible president, but, in all fairness, he did nothing most other presidents did not do. He just had far worse results than most — perhaps because he utilized far worse tactics than most.

What did he do?

Well, he bought into the myth that the president is infallible. And when a president is seduced by that particular myth, inevitably he makes at least one bad choice — and then spends the rest of his presidency, if not his life, justifying and rationalizing.

I don't know when this idea of infallibility took hold. But most presidents seem to have concluded — even if they entered the presidency as "men of the people" — that they know best. The transformation seems almost biblical. Apparently, all one must do to become infallible is to repeat the presidential oath of office.

Maybe there is something magical about that oath. Or maybe the American people are just natural enablers. That might explain a lot.

I suppose the attitude at its most extreme was summed up best by Richard Nixon, who told David Frost, "[W]hen the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."

I have seen no evidence that any other president crossed some criminal threshold in his actions, but history sure is loaded with bad presidential decisions.

And one of the worst may turn out to be Barack Obama's decision to emphasize health care reform over job creation when his presidency began — even though job losses had been increasing for months prior to his inauguration, and they continued, sometimes at alarming monthly levels, through his first year in office. (I criticized Obama in this blog last Labor Day when he declined to make any speeches about the nation's joblessness crisis — a decision that all too clearly demonstrated how much he cared about the unemployed.)

Despite occasional lip service, this president has done little in defense of the unemployed. He only seemed to discover the problem after his party lost its filibuster–proof majority in the Senate with Scott Brown's upset victory in Massachusetts.

That has been a tragic mistake.

The appearance of bipartisanship — so fervently desired that it was claimed to have been achieved if even a single Republican vote was drawn to the Democrats' side in either the House or the Senate — took greater precedence for Obama.

"Employment is the No. 1 issue for most ordinary Americans," writes Bob Herbert of the New York Times. "Their anxiety on this front only grows as they watch teachers, firefighters and police officers lining up to walk the unemployment plank as state and local governments wrestle with horrendous budget deficits.

"And what do these worried Americans see the Obama administration doing? It's doubling down on the war in Afghanistan, trying somehow to build a nation from scratch in the chaos of a combat zone."

From just about this time last year (when Democrat Al Franken was declared the winner in Minnesota) until this past January (when Brown won the seat that had belonged to Ted Kennedy), the Democrats could have done anything they wanted and the Republicans would have been virtually powerless to stop them. Why didn't they?

Why didn't they?

It's no wonder to me that people feel a disconnect between themselves and their government.

Want to know what really astonishes me? The administration's blase attitude toward unemployment in general has been stunning, but its apparent lack of interest in the joblessness epidemic among the nation's older workers truly is appalling.

Perhaps Obama isn't as smart as I gave him credit for. I mean, the numbers have shown that those who routinely vote in midterm elections are not the liberals or the young or the blacks — the groups that showed up in unprecedented numbers to elect Obama in 2008. Midterm voters tend to be older Americans. And CNN reported a few days ago that older Americans, particularly those 55 and older, who find themselves out of work face an especially daunting task in finding new jobs.

Doesn't common sense suggest that a president whose party holds majorities in both houses of Congress would want to do anything he could to appease older voters in a midterm election year? Including promoting legislation that would reward employers for hiring older Americans?

But Obama and the Democrats in Congress look backward instead of forward, assigning blame instead of standing up in defense of the jobless. They aren't accomplishing much for the unemployed, are they? A bill that would have extended jobless benefits through November failed. And, while Obama and the Democrats are justifiably proud of their achievement in passing health care reform, the truth in America today is that many must choose between health insurance and their daily expenses. Guess which one wins?
"The Obama administration feels it should get a great deal of credit for its economic stimulus efforts, its health care initiative, its financial reform legislation, its vastly increased aid to education and so forth. And maybe if we were grading papers, there would be a fair number of decent marks to be handed out."

Bob Herbert

"By nearly 2 to 1," Herbert says, "respondents to the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll believed the United States is on the wrong track. ... Mr. Obama is paying dearly for his tin ear on this topic. Fifty–four percent of respondents believed he does not have a clear plan for creating jobs. Only 45 percent approved of his overall handling of the economy, compared with 48 percent who disapproved."

Some of Obama's diehard apologists may think that is an aberration, but the truth is that other polls (NBC News/Wall Street Journal, Ipsos/McClatchy, Associated Press/GfK, ABC News/Washington Post) have reported similar, if not worse (Rasmussen) findings in recent weeks.

Things may well look different to most people three or four years from now, when the health care reforms are going to start to kick in. But right now, as Herbert points out, "Destitution is beckoning for those whose unemployment benefits are running out."

No matter what the Labor Department's figures tell you in a few days, most of America's unemployed could probably tell you they've had a bellyful of change.

But they're running short of hope.

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