Obama Year One: Reality Bites

A year has gone by since President Obama took the oath of office. After the extremes of the George Bush years and the unimpressive McCain-Sarah Palin campaign, Obama seemed like a breath of much-needed fresh air.  With a clever Internet savvy campaign, Obama positioned himself as the right transformational candidate to repair the  endless damage caused by Bush and his team. Despite being relatively unknown, he ran a truly inspirational campaign that captured the imagination of many, especially the young. One year into his presidency, much of that momentum appears to have been lost and many of his ardent supporters have reason to feel disappointed. True, he was dealt the most difficult challenges in recent times. But his approach and accomplishments to-date leave much to be desired and are quite inconsistent with the promise his campaign displayed.

While there are a host of issues on which to evaluate his performance, three of them are particularly insightful: the financial crisis, the Afghan War, and the Healthcare battle. There is no doubt that President Obama inherited a financial mess. A year later — with unemployment at over 10%  – Main Street is hurting, Wall Street is happier with a healthy Dow/Nasdaq and “fat-cat bankers” are once again receiving hefty bonuses. Several experts feel/felt that the stimulus wasn’t exactly sufficient and that the response to the crisis wasn’t exactly “bold enough.” The jury is still out on his response to the the financial mess, though in large part it is by and large a continuation of the policies that President Bush set in motion.

The biggest decision he has made so far is the one to expand the Afghan war effort. While he did say during the campaign that the Afghan war was the “right war,” most people (especially those on the left) believed (or hoped!) that President Obama was opposed to war in general. Unfortunately, after four months of analysis-paralysis (or dithering as Cheney called it), he arrived at the exact same conclusion as the Bush-Cheney team and chose to expand troops, the drone attacks, etc. To top it off, there is complete ambiguity regarding whether the troops would withdraw after 18 months from Afghanistan. Once again, a lost opportunity to make a bold break from the policies of the Bush era.

A President who was deeply opposed to war should have called in his generals on day one and told them without mincing words that he was personally opposed to the war and  convinced them of his rationale.  Asking a general if he wanted more troops is like asking a senior VP at IBM if he wanted more resources to continue to pursue his  next generation project which was already  well over budget, was still understaffed, and unlikely to deliver a successful product. Of course the generals don’t like to accept anything that even remotely smells of defeat. Certainly they are going to ask for a troop expansion!  In fact, General McCrystal went a step further and got away with a premature public pronouncement about the need for 40,000 additional troops. It was a pre-emptive strike against an inexperienced President.

It appears as though President Obama agonized over the decision for four months because he was deeply conscious of the negative implications of war and the weight of the responsibility that comes with such a decision given the potential deaths of young Americans. He had to weigh this against his assessment of the political implications of a withdrawal. With  the nation deeply divided , the Congressional elections looming on the horizon, and the fear that Democrats would once again be labeled as “weak on national defense” President Obama caved in to his generals’ requests, dumped his widely believed left leanings and embraced what he suspected would move him “safely” to the political center. On this issue, clearly President Obama’s political instincts got the better of his perceived ideology. Furthermore, he failed to make a convincing case for why the effort in Afghanistan should be persisted with. His “evil in the world” rhetoric sounded more like George Bush minus the conviction.

The Healthcare battle on the other hand is more stark. The President came into this clearly signifying that he was strongly in favor of universal healthcare. But the devil is in the details as always. When it came down to the contentious issue of the public option, the winds of ambiguity began to take over as is  fast becoming the norm with this administration. Is he for the public option? Will he sign if there is no public option? Does he care enough for the public option to push for it? With the recent senate defeat in MA, the healthcare bill appears to be in jeopardy with no end in sight.

A big part of being a good administrator is to prioritize and be selective about what to pursue, estimate how long something might take, and then execute effectively. On all  these three fronts he has clearly faltered in his first year in office. He first promised a healthcare bill in summer of 2009 and then before last Christmas, and now  it  is completely open ended – a sign that his administrative experience is still unproven and questionable. (closure of Guantanamo being another example).

Despite all his shortcomings and the difficulties facing the country, President Obama still appears to be the right man for the job, especially when compared to the other aspirants for the presidency. He continues to seem like a “cool guy” whose heart is in the right place.  His speeches – the language, the delivery, the style – are easily one of the best (since Bill Clinton) in recent times in American politics. His genuine and consistent attempt to reach out to the Muslim world (referred to as the “apology tour” by the GOP) has helped the world see America a little more favorably today than it did in the Bush-Cheney years. He seems to care deeply about societal inequalities and clearly aspires to do something about it. His first year in office confirms that he is a shrewd politician who knows how to gain power (time will tell if he knows how to retain it), but isn’t very good at using it (unlike his predecessor),  in spite of a Democratic majority in Congress.

Unlike Bush, Obama does not evoke extreme emotions, partly because of his ambiguity on various issues. He is so guarded (he used a teleprompter when addressing 6 year olds!) that even the late night comics seldom find material to joke about him. Despite the accusations of his critics on the right, he does not appear to have a strong ideological bias, enough to  make dramatic shifts in policy.  In fact, given a chance,  I suspect President Obama would prefer not to have an opinion on any issue (as is consistent with his voting record in the Illinois senate).  For the rest of his term, he needs  to overcome the apparent lack of boldness, sharpen his administrative skills and  clear the pervading air of ambiguity that has been a consistent phenomenon of his first year in office. After having rallied the country around cries of “yes we can” he needs to show us how he actually can over the next three years.

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