Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Candidate Obama Might Have Some Questions for President Obama

[I was invited by the editors of HuffingtonPost.com to write a reaction to Arianna Huffington's article comparing President Obama to Candidate Obama, after she read David Plouffe's new book. This is what I came up with. You can access it from my author page here.]

As Barack Obama stood in Grant Park a year ago tonight and gave his victory speech, it was a galvanizing moment, one I (and millions of others) will never forget. A year later, many of the president's supporters are expressing concern as to whether he has kept faithful to the vision he laid out in his campaign.

Today, Arianna argued that candidate Obama might not be so thrilled with the job President Obama is doing. She wrote: "Would he look at what the White House is doing and say, 'that's what I and my supporters worked so hard for?'"

I understand the dismay some, like Arianna, are expressing. It's hard to read headlines on HuffPo like "Obama Administration Helps House Gut Post-Enron Reforms" and not wonder where the "change" we were promised is hiding.

I find myself torn between two points of view I find compelling. On the one hand, it would have been virtually impossible for a president to come in and undo decades of corruption and inertia in Washington politics in one year. The mountain the president had to climb in this regard was immense. To me, though, the biggest problem has been that Obama lacks a necessary partner in this epic struggle: Congress. As I wrote in September in the context of the health care debate, it seems to me that the Democrats in Congress have forgotten that the president won 365 electoral votes last November, and that the American people handed 59 seats in the Senate (before Arlen Specter's defection made it 60) and 256 seats in the House to the Democrats. From the fight over the stimulus legislation, through the battle over the budget, and careening right into the war over health care reform, Congressional Democrats seem to have forgotten that the American people bestowed a mandate on them to enact the president's agenda. For some inexplicable reason, they've been scared of the Republicans, who retain the ability to be obstructionist, but don't have any power to actually do anything. (Making the Republicans filibuster something is not a bad thing.)

If Obama has been timid, the Democrats in Congress have been straight-out terrified.

And despite the Democrats on Capitol Hill not pulling their share of the "change" weight, Obama did manage to get through stimulus legislation and important programs in the budget, and health care reform has gotten further along in the process than it ever has before. Not to mention the general competency and positive world view that Obama has brought to the White House, a huge change from his bumbling, toxic and disastrous predecessor.

At the same time, I would be lying if said I wasn't disappointed with Obama's leadership. I applauded his early efforts at bipartisanship, but once the Republicans revealed themselves to be completely uninterested in any kind of cooperation, only focused on blocking the president at every turn, his attempts to come up with bipartisan solutions morphed from being admirable to being naive and counterproductive. (I agree with Arianna that I couldn't care less what Olympia Snowe does or does not want in health care reform legislation.) I appreciated Obama's desire to learn from past mistakes and allow Congress to generate legislation, rather than imposing solutions on the legislators (after the Clinton administration's failed attempt at health care reform). But coming off the election, the president had enormous political capital (really a blank check to move forward with anything he campaigned for), and I can't help thinking that he didn't make enough use of it. Some more outspoken leadership was necessary (and missed).

And most of all, the president hasn't done enough to foster the idea that his is an administration of change, just like he promised. Arianna is unhappy that Larry Summers has an influential position in the Obama White House, and such an objection is understandable, given his close ties to the kind of deregulation, anything-goes attitude that contributed to creating the economic mess the administration now has to try and clean up. But to me, the problem isn't who the president does and doesn't hire. It all comes down to him. When he spoke to a joint session of Congress about health care, it re-ignited action on reform and turned the mood around. It was an important speech and an important show of leadership from the president. I'd like to see more moments like that one.

During the campaign, every time writers (and I was one of them, on occasion) groused that Obama wasn't hitting back hard enough when his opponents attacked, his strategy always seemed to pay off in the end, making the pundits look bad. So I can't help feeling like he must know what he is doing now, that there is a strategy behind his less-than-assertive public approach to his presidency. But as each day goes by, it becomes harder to have faith. As Arianna noted, the ability to make pitch-perfect course corrections during the campaign was a key to Obama's success. Hopefully, he will continue that trend in the second year of his presidency.

Just over 10 months ago Obama took the oath of office with unfair expectations hovering ominously over his head, so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But, as Arianna's article shows, that benefit is not extended by all, and it is not available indefinitely. One thing I think we can all agree on is that President Obama would benefit from a little infusion of Candidate Obama. The future of his presidency may depend on it.