Sunday, January 31, 2010

Obama and the Era of Impatience

We live in an era of great impatience. Things that once took a day to get done we now want done in an hour; things that once took a year to get done we now want done in a month; things that once took a decade to achieve we now want done in a year. That impatience fostered by the media, the internet, and both political parties has altered and distorted how we assess events in the American political landscape. The rules have changed and the game has gotten much tougher though definitely not better.

And so it is for President Barack Obama after finishing his first year in office. His post-mortems are already being written and we haven’t even reached the Congressional mid-terms elections yet.

If you take a deep breathe, relax, and look at recent events with a calm, detached eye the President’s situation is not as lost as many would like to see it.

What has gone wrong? The Democrats lost a Senate seat thus taking away their filibuster-proof majority. They still have fifty-nine seats in the Senate for the time being—a substantial number no matter how you slice it or dice it. All the Republicans can do is filibuster but can they roadblock every single initiative that comes from the White House? Would that be politically wise since the American economy and the job market remain in very bad shape and remedial action is still needed? Fiscal restraint is all well and good—when it is actually practiced which it hasn’t been since Dwight Eisenhower was President—but the essential problem still remains how do we get America working again. In reality all the G.O.P. can do is leaven the Obama Administration’s economic policies and put some brakes on the more liberal programs the President has in mind. They cannot stop it unless they gain significant defections from the Democratic ranks.

What about Health Care reform? Despite all the ideological mud wrestling, people forget that President Obama did a much better job in getting Health Care legislation passed than Bill Clinton did. Clinton’s health care initiatives were defeated in Congress. Obama got the House and the Senate to pass health care reform bills. Even though the House and Senate bills were not the same, Obama, with the help of the Democratic leadership, did get the bills passed. Whether those bills will actually provide the proper reforms needed for the American health care system is debatable. But Obama still deserves credit for showing greater political flexibility and patience in allowing Congress time to get the legislation passed. All that remains is for the two bills to be reconciled but with the loss of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat to the Republicans that reconciliation will have to wait.

Did President Obama go too far in pushing health care and risking his congressional base? I think not. If I’m not mistaken Obama is the first President to have filibuster proof majorities in both houses of Congress since Lyndon Johnson in 1965. Such opportunities to get major domestic legislation passed without gridlock cannot be wasted. President Obama saw the opportunity to tilt the political landscape and did what he could. He would have been a fool not to seize it. No President worth their salt—whether they are liberal or conservative—would dare pass up a political gift from God like that.

Lyndon Johnson once said words to the effect that a President has one year of maximum effectiveness; by the second year, Congress is more concerned about getting re-elected than passing the President’s initiatives; by the third year Congress is waiting to see whether the incumbent President will be re-elected or not.

Obama’s year of maximum effectiveness has ended. Now he faces the stern task of negotiating with a slightly stronger Republican base while seeking to preserve his majority. His reactions are revealing. After the Massachusetts defeat, he revamped his political advisory team; readjusted himself to the changing political winds; and has returned to the campaign trail.

How has Obama performed? Better than Clinton or Carter did in their first years as President. Obama’s domestic programs are much more ambitious and audacious in scope than Clinton’s or Carter’s were. He has proven more adroit in harnessing his Congressional majorities than Carter or Clinton did. He has been more lucky than skillful in the foreign policy sphere. He has dodged some bullets. Whether his luck can hold out remains to be seen?

As for the economic recovery effort, the maxim that time takes time is useful here. FDR’s New Deal didn’t end the Great Depression. America’s entry into World War Two did. What the New Deal did was to provide a wide variety of fiscal safety nets to the American people to keep them afloat until the economy did revive. More recently, it took two years before Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts and fiscal re-structuring turned the American economy around. Until now, the recession of 1981-1982 was one of the worst in American history. President Reagan asked the American people to be patient and to “stay the course”. Although Reagan lost congressional seats to the Democrats in 1982, the American people stayed the course and the economy revived in 1983 and Reagan was re-elected in a landslide.

I feel that President Obama is entitled to the same consideration Reagan received.

It’s only fair.

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