Monday, October 18, 2010

Obama 2.0 (Oct. '10)

by Richard Crews
In my opinion Obama has been brilliant as a president. He faced--and faced up to--a global financial disaster comparable to the Great Depression and was both carefully contemplative and heroic in the measures he orchestrated to address it. He inherited a disastrous decline in U.S. education (from 1st to 13th in the industrialized world over the past 20 years) and miraculously leveraged minimal funds into astonishing progress through his "Race to the Top" program. He dug U.S. international diplomacy out of a "cowboy bully" image and raised it to a position of "esteemed negotiator." He brought the U.S. into line with universal health-care goals and practices that are common throughout the civilized world although he had to overcome massive cavalier political opportunism to do so. He reversed the anti-scientism of the previous administration. He faced natural disasters with efficiency, alacrity, and compassion. He put U.S. infrastructural decline, energy mismanagement, and environmental pollution firmly back on the national political agenda. And more.

Where did he go wrong? In the first place, how did he get so far behind the cultural curve on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? And why has he seemed so slow and marginally effective in dealing with (and bringing to a close) the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? I think that running an army and dealing with hardened, top military brass was all too new to him. In his relationship with the military he let himself be cowed.

Second, in dealing with Congress he approached the task as a Constitutional scholar respectful of "checks and balances." He did not take a strong enough active and directive hand. For example, he let the Democrats in Congress roll every pet progressive project of the past 20 years into the "stimulus" package (worthwhile projects, but an unworkable dilution of the primary mission). In addition, he (somehow) let the Republicans escape from responsible participation in governing into obstructionism and vapid political rhetoric.

But most of all he acted as if the presidency is not first and foremost a political office. Apparently he thought that if he governed the world's most powerful nation and administered the world's largest and most complex bureaucracy with ethics and efficiency, that the politics would come tidily following along behind. This proved not so. Putting on a show--a media tour de force--to cajole and satiate the great, preoccupied, American masses is unfortunately the first and constant job of the president.

I think the storied leaders of ancient Rome--the Senators and Caesars--came to understand this. They found they could craft a stronger state or, on the other hand, could neglect and pillage it as long as they gave bread to the starving masses and threw great Super-Bowl extravaganzas of slaughtered gladiators, slaves, prisoners, and beasts in the Colosseum.

So hopefully Obama 2.0 will continue the brilliant, ethical leadership that has characterized his first two years in office, but in addition he will realize that he has to stay continuously on the campaign trail.