Wednesday, January 20, 2010

So Far, Obama Hasn't Delivered the Goods

(In an edited version, this post appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday.)

One year into Barack Obama’s term of office, two remarkable things stand out: how little he has achieved on the core issues on his agenda; and how potent the right-wing has grown during his watch. It’s too early to make a predication, but this has the feel of a one-term presidency about it.

On the four great questions that have shaped his year in the White House---the economy, health care, the war and the environment---Obama cannot claim any clear victories.

Despite the rebound of the stock market and the return to huge bonuses on Wall Street, most Americans remain mired in debt and millions of them are living in depression-like conditions. The economy has come back far enough to reassure the wealthy and the corporate elites that things ought to return to pre-crash ways and that there is no need for radical and sweeping measures of the kind that they were prepared to accept during the great bailouts a year ago.

Food stamps are needed by one adult in eight and one child in four to keep enough food on the table. The real incomes (adjusted for inflation) of wage and salary earning Americans are lower now than they were a decade ago. Members of this crucial constituency are asking themselves what Obama has done for them. Ill-at-ease about the future, many of them are open to alternative political narratives, including those of the populist right. In Midwest industrial states, the rising economic woes of white working class males---at 11 per cent the male unemployment rate is higher than the national average---are pushing some who voted Democrat in 2008 into the Republican column. Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas has pointed to a loss of support for Obama and the Democrats “with a significant portion of the electorate---white working class men.”

Obama’s agonizing congressional struggle over health-care is ending in a draw, at best. While the final version of the reform package---once the Senate and the House of Representatives negotiate a single version of the bill---will convey tangible benefits on millions of Americans, these will be a long time coming. Although millions of people will get health care coverage for the first time and millions of others will have an easier time transferring their coverage when they change jobs and others won’t have to fear being dropped by insurance companies, the changes are very hard to understand. Unlike the start-up of Canadian medicare decades ago, which enabled people to visit the doctor or the hospital without paying bills, the effects of the emerging American system are far from clear to most people. The political right has scored points with the idea that the initial costs will saddle the government with new debts while the average American is puzzled about what the tangible benefits might actually be.

Escalating the war in Afghanistan by sending an additional thirty thousand troops there has divided the very constituencies that backed Obama’s run for the White House. A CNN poll taken in December showed that while a majority of Americans are prepared to back the president’s plan to send more troops, fifty-five per cent of those polled say they oppose the war, while only forty-three per cent back the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. If this sounds contradictory, it is. Most Americans are giving Obama the benefit of the doubt on the issue for the moment, but if the war grinds on, and particularly if there is a sharp increase in U.S. casualties, the underlying doubts among Obama backers are likely to come to the fore. The irony of a president receiving the Nobel Peace Prize while escalating a war has not been lost on millions of Americans.

Closely linked to the war is the national security file. The attempted bombing of a Detroit bound Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas day has called into question the competence of Obama’s national security team. National security is never a good issue for a Democrat and the president has been forced to play defence as the public mood falls back into panic mode.

On the environment, Obama did manage to salvage a non-binding agreement at the Copenhagen climate change conference. But the deal the president brokered with China, India and Brazil among others was high on aspiration but weak on commitments. The 193 nations with representatives at Copenhagen agreed to “take note” of the accord reached there, whose goals are to limit the world’s average temperature increase to two degrees Celsius and to raise tens of billions of dollars for developing countries to aid them in their fight to limit climate change. Lacking were commitments to hard targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a specific plan to raise the billions for the developing countries. As on other issues, Obama scored better rhetorically than substantively, and this is eating away at his political capital among Americans who had embraced his politics of hope.

Meanwhile, for a party that led the United States into economic collapse, two wars and an ocean of public and private indebtedness, the Republicans and especially the populist right are showing surprising vitality. While it is easy to snicker at movements that deny that Barack Obama was actually born in the United States, and that human activity plays a role in climate change, while insisting that health care reform is a socialist conspiracy or that steep new tax cuts would cure America’s ills, it is a serious error to underestimate the populist right in the United States. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Lou Dobbs may not yet have the formula to put together a winning run for the White House. And Sarah Palin is not now ready to debate Barack Obama. But the right is successfully touching the heartstrings of Americans who feel left out and fear what the future may bring. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed that 33 per cent of independents in the U.S. prefer the right-wing “tea party” movement, made up of opponents of big government, health care reform, and a multilateralist foreign policy to the Democrats who came in at 25 per cent.

While his sweeping intellectual capacity remains in evidence, Barack Obama’s ability to deliver the goods to those who voted for him or at least to convey to them the message that he is on their side is now in serious doubt. He has time to change this. If not, the signs are there that his could be a one-term presidency.


Christian said...

It has been one year! Christ!

Anonymous said...
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Filostrato said...

Perhaps Obama is just getting the complete picture of the system he's involved with - the bought-and-paid-for politicians, the Christian Crusader mentality of the military, the inept and murderous CIA and their buddies the various mercenary businesses.

Having seen everything now, his only goal may be just to survive his presidency. I doubt he will run again. He was flattered into running in the first place. He probably feels threatened now.

He looks sick and tense, and I bet he's smoking a lot more than he used to.

Only three more years...

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Anonymous said...

Professor Laxer, I mostly agree with you; though I think your comments on the Detroit bomber are a bit unfair. I don't think it is possible for the administration to control for every crazy person who wants to light their underwear on fire (or fly a plane into an IRS building).

I was watching Bill Maher, they said that actually on national security Obama's been doing a fairly good job, just not been good enough about promoting it.

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