Invitation

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The President

The President
Obama looks ahead

Monday, August 15, 2011

Obama's America

Michael White

The trials of the first Black President

Barack Obama’s administration can be viewed from three main perspectives, what he thinks of himself; what he does; what others think of him. Four things about the man himself stand out and define his presidency: his nature and upbringing, his trust and confidence in human nature; his propensity to conciliation rather than confrontation and total failure to believe, accept or acknowledge that there is prejudice of the vilest kind operating against him in “post-racial” America.

Obama’s predisposition for compromise and his aversion to confrontation, which under normal circumstances would be hailed as most desirable Christian traits, have placed him often in the unenviable position of seeming weak and indecisive.

From the outset Obama made an irreversible commitment to changing “the way Washington does business”; this was his dominant rallying call. Yet, this was somewhat naïve, and really underestimated the strength of his opposition’s determination to block and frustrate every one of his initiatives. Changing a culture assumes a willingness or even inclination of the culture to change; this is true whether you are talking about a family, a corporation, a parliament, or a country. A man cannot single handedly change a culture, especially one diametrically opposed to his very existence. He did not anticipate the strength of the Republican pushback.

Thus, the first and most persistent obstacle Obama was to confront throughout his first term, was a devilish opposition in Congress which, as an article of faith, made the decision to “just say no to everything” he proposed, however valuable or critical to the country’s growth and the peoples’ prosperity. It really is difficult to imagine a group of “tribal leaders” in even the most backward and primitive of nations who would deliberately choose to sabotage their country’s economy and cause the prolonged suffering of many of its people just to ensure that the leader fails and is not returned to office. There is the smell here of the miscreants in Somalia, preventing humanitarian aid from getting to starving multitudes.

Obama’s presidency started off confronted with distractions relating to falsehoods propagated by opponents, notably birtherism, his not being a real American, not being Christian (and thus lying about his own spirituality), that he is a Socialist, a Muslin; and a man who, in Sarah Palin’s eternally stupid phrase, has a tendency to “pal around with terrorists.”

Obama has not, even now, come to grips with the “hate” motivation of his opponents even after they have depicted him in the most derogatory terms and with the most vindictive images, such as a savage with a bone through his nose. He could not imagine and, less, come to grips with, the sheer personal venom directed at him from all the Republican leaders and commentators in and out of Congress.

Forgotten or minimized in all the talk across America about the country’s problems is the central fact that many leaders in the Republican Party, have vowed to make Obama a one-term President and are determined that his Presidency should fail!! Think about it, the people who are to work with the President to make things such as employment happen, are vowed that they will not help him in any way to achieve this goal. This must be the first President that has had to deal with such a resolution. A lot of the conversation among the pundits about what Obama should or should not do, ignores this reality. Why? Why is it so difficult to grasp that this presents a major constraint to action?

It is also difficult to comprehend the failure of commentators in America to grasp the disproportionate impact of wealthy vested interests in using their media advantage to influence national thought and policy. These vested interests with their vast resources, have unabashedly manipulated, controlled and directed the story through media advertisements in the great debates such as health care, the President’s citizenship, and corporate fiscal policy. This is of course a total perversion of democracy.

The first fight that Obama was drawn into, which he lost, was his identification with Reverend Wright. This fight started before his inauguration but it was the first test case raised by his opponents. He resolved it by disconnecting from the Church where he and his family nurtured their faith. Of course, a man’s faith, whether he is president or not, is an intensely personal affair. Yet his resolution foretold the pattern of his response to sustained pressure.

Obama tackled Health Care early in his administration because he was passionate about bringing to every other citizen the same health care benefits Congress enjoys; he also needed a key area of national life in which to make a great and lasting impact. That focus ensured that dealing purposefully with other important issues like jobs, while at the same time navigating through a recalcitrant Congress, took a back seat, never mind his justifiable argument that fixing health care was essential to fixing overall economic growth. And the problem is that his health care thrust was predictably met by the promised opposition; so despite his success, it was twisted by the Republicans to make him look ineffective. Nevertheless his success in passing this legislation showed a hard-nosed determination, an aspect of his persona that he is not often willing to display.

In the spirit of reconciliation, Obama made a calculated decision at the outset of his administration, not to seek to punish anyone who was in any way responsible for the financial meltdown under his predecessor’s administration. Part of that was because, for personal humanitarian reasons, he wanted to avoid imposing any unnecessary embarrassment on George Bush; part of it was to keep to his maxim of starting Government with a clean slate, that is, changing the way Washington does business. This writer would like to have heard the Obama-Holder debate about this decision. Sounds noble, but somewhat counterintuitive, since to start afresh, someone has to be held accountable for the damage that has been done, if only for the purpose of ensuring any recompense that may be necessary.

Thus, not only were the Banks and Wall Street not held to account after wantonly squandering the national wealth and jeopardizing the livelihoods and lifestyles of millions of citizens, but were even more emboldened to continue to profiteer at the expense of the economy and the unemployed poor. How could such a policy ever be justified? It is paradoxical, although easy to understand in the political context, that these same baled-out organizations are now the ones in league with the Republicans in keeping anything positive from happening in the Obama Economy.

Not wanting ever to appear racially motivated, Obama has run from, or kept a safe distance from race issues; perhaps the one exception was the one that led to the famous beer summit; he seemed to have learned from this particular experience that he would not be forgiven for even the appearance of taking a side in a racial dispute. He was, of course, correct in this judgement. After all, he is the first black president and for this, in the minds of his detractors, he should be grateful.

Inheriting an economy on the brink of ruin with massive debt and unemployment, Obama was forced to ensure as his main initial priority, that the whole financial structure of the country did not collapse. He also saw the need to bolster the major American corporations, providers of millions of secure jobs, at risk of going under. At the time when this was, and still is, opposed by the Republicans, his action in restoring the auto industry, was a stellar achievement.

From hindsight, the choice for priority focus should have been immediately getting people back to work. The jobs debate and jobs bill to which he is now “pivoting”, should have been Job One, and his economic advisers should have insisted on this. But one gets the feeling that this was not their area of expertise or dominant interest.

Not that creating jobs was not given some priority. The “stimulus” in principle was a good idea, but it clearly was not focused enough and sufficiently based on the real opportunities for economic growth or stimulation in the economy. It incorporated, as a concession to opposition voices, too much tax relief and too little financial investment in potential growth sectors, like construction and rehabilitation of civil works. The auto-industry model should have been applied to other sectors, with the focus on small business growth and expansion, from the very start of the administration.

In many public pronouncements Obama has repeatedly emphasized the importance he attaches to job creation; yet, after every critical issue he deals with, there is an outcry, particularly from media commentators, for him to introduce a jobs plan! As if he has never thought of it and they, the commentators, are the ones concerned about jobs and solutions. This is just amazing.

The underlying assumption behind the behaviour of the Republicans in Congress is that the American electorate is dumb and stupid. Everybody knows or should know by now that there are bills pending in the House that if passed would immediately result in significant job creation. John Boehner on vacation, leaves the indolence of the golf course just long enough to make a statement with the usual aggression, asking Obama: “Mr. President where are the jobs?” All Boehner has to do is forego a session of golf, dry his tears and convene the House for one day and pass, for instance, the transportation bill that would result in considerable road building works and jobs. Even intelligent commentators and analysts like Chris Matthews, fall into the trap of Boehner’s deceit, repeatedly asking why the President does not build roads and bridges to put people to work. If a reflective sympathiser like Matthews can be deceived by this, what hope is there for the ordinary man and woman?

Obama receives hefty doses of criticism from friends and foes. I have observed that there is a temperamental difference between Republicans and Democrats; in general Democrats come across as far less willing to lie their way through a problem or to start a lie and to stand resolutely by it through thick and thin. In a way it matches the President’s own temperament as the lead Democrat. There is another palpable difference, Republican commentators and strategists never, on any matter, trivial or substantive, speak against their own; democratic sympathisers are frequently, presumably in the interest of fair play and justice, far more critical when their man even appears to go wrong.

America has a system of “Government by catch-phrase”. One of the most paradoxical is: “He now owns the economy”. That is a conclusion the pundits and parties unceremoniously force on the new President after a certain imaginary period of about 1 to 2 years in office. How does a man after two years, own an eight year old emaciated economy, especially when half of the Government can decide to, and have the ability to deliberately block every initiative the President proposes?!

Republicans framed Obama’s presidency around the ‘Big Government’ argument: Government is too big in America and too intrusive in people’s lives. And that at a time when the country is in a state of near collapse and requiring all the Government intervention it could get. So even with Obama’s single handed salvaging of America’s most prestigious industry, the auto industry, he is at the same time, having to defend himself against the big government argument. He gets almost no credit for saving the one industry that most characterizes and symbolizes the success of American capitalism, an industry whose roots go long and deep into the American economy.

The American system of Government can work when it is based on integrity, honesty and reason; when the fundamental values of fair play and justice are in place and honoured. The assumption must be that everyone is acting from the best of possible motives and that actions will be taken that are in the public good. Otherwise it cannot work; when the checks far outweigh the balances you have stalemate and dysfunction.

So now that it is necessary to invest in infrastructure projects to get Americans back to work Obama is virtually immobilized by the box in which he has allowed others to place him. Following his initial efforts to stabilize a drowning economy, Obama was drawn into a deficit and debt debate which diverted attention from what he knows is the real malaise in the society: unemployment and the lack of productivity.

Friends as well as enemies have criticised Obama for being too timid; too intellectual, too professorial, better as a professor in a classroom than a manager in a global enterprise. It was so important for him to have captured the illusive Bin Laden. In his mind he must have thought that the success of the mission should settle the issue once and for all, and in a way it did, for a while; he should have known, however, that whatever victory he accomplished in the military arena, his enemies would immediately pivot the conversation, as they did successfully, to another assumed weakness. He should perhaps have been as bullish on the economy as he was on the wars that others started.

Obama’s Afghanistan war commitment was initially justified. It was predicated on the conviction that the threat from Al Qaeda emanated from that country and that for the security of the United States, that safe haven should be permanently disrupted. Prior evidence had suggested that this is where the main leaders of the terrorist organization, including Bin Laden were holed up. But he lost an opportunity on the capture of Bin Laden in a most unlikely arena, to pivot (that word again!) away from his commitment to intensifying the war in Afghanistan. Instead he initiated a mystifyingly slow draw down of troops; mostly I believe for fear of reigniting the tired debate about his weakness in use of American military strength. But to be fair, it may be that his calculation is that maintaining a strong presence in Afghanistan is the surest way of maintaining vigilance against terrorist organizations in that part of the world which includes Pakistan.

Americans like the notion of their military prowess and global ascendancy; they dislike the news of causalities of war. Going to Afghanistan to protect American security is good; staying in Afghanistan amid news of soldiers being killed is anathema. A President, any President has to, in the public mind, reconcile the irreconcilables. But since he can’t, he has to deal with the clamour which periodically erupts at the end of each battlefield tragedy, to end the war and bring the troops home. (By the way, the terrorists are exactly the opposite; when their troops die they are emboldened to become more vocal, committed and aggressive).

Similarly, he has been far too slow to pull out completely from Iraq; strangely those members of the opposition who are eternally hawkish about the war- all wars - give him the encouragement and moral support he needs to stay engaged in the Afghanistan war; so he chooses to be happy at their side rather than the side of his friends; it’s mostly about his conciliatory temperament, and making Washington work.

Another common American system catch-phrase is: “there is enough blame to go around”, used continuously by actors on the political stage who refuse to admit their culpability for their wrong choices. The truth is that in much of the great disputes one party is dead wrong and the other right. The Tea party’s insistence on no taxes and reduced spending by Government was the single predominant cause of the debt ceiling debacle and the near economic catastrophe. The blame is not to be diluted by being spread around; it is to be placed squarely on the backs of the culpable Tea Party Republicans led by Cantor!!

In conclusion I want to raise one more issue. It has to be brought into question whether Obama selected the appropriate advisors and lieutenants. Leaders select, organize and reorganize teams. It is important in selecting a team to choose sound advisers on whose judgement you can depend, from the start to the successful conclusion of the project. Obama in two years has lost several of his key advisers. Why did they have to bail before the job was done? Too much dependence on advisers with too little knowledge will inevitably lead you down the wrong paths.

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