Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Big Picture and the Strike: 100 Days

The Big Picture: My basic standard for evaluating any politician and especially a President is by how far, and how sustainably, he or she has moved the country toward the broadest possible happiness, security, and opportunity. For me this means something along the lines of social democracy or democratic socialism. I measure how far the President has pushed the country to the left, both in the substance of what has actually happened and in the impressions among the electorate, considering a) how close his actions are to my desires, b) how effective I expect them to be, and c) how likely they are to be sustained for the long term.

Compared with almost all of his predecessors, Barack Obama's First 100 Days has been extraordinarily impressive by my standards. That enthusiasm is tempered, however, because most of President Obama's predecessors were mediocre to poor by my standards. To be sure, I do not take for granted the great fortune that Barack Obama is now our President - it's the best thing to happen in this country for a long, long time. But because his predecessors were on the whole so inadequate, the country has stagnated or moved in the wrong direction for a long time, and there is so much urgent work to do to clean up the devastation wreaked by the Reagan Era a.k.a the Lost Period. At the same time, these conditions have provided Barack Obama with an extraordinary opportunity to move the country toward social democracy in a far-reaching and sustainable way, because people had become so dissatisfied with the Lost Period, and so fed up with the figures and ideologies who represent Obama's opposition. So I am holding and will continue to hold Barack Obama to the standard set by all he needs to achieve, and can achieve, due to the current environment in the country. I am also holding Barack Obama to the standard of his own potential: he is the most powerful man in the world, and his capabilities are at such an extraordinarily high level to sustainably shift the country in a far better direction - due to his political astuteness, his communication skills, the inspiration of his speeches and his life, his deep intelligence and farsightedness and sense of perspective, and his ability to get things done as a leader, personnel manager, decision-maker, and superb competence and persistence. In short, the standard is very high.

Given that standard, I am evaluating Obama on three different elements of the Presidency, or three different planes. One is the short-term plane: the day-to-day work as a decision-maker, a communicator, and a leader, with competence and effectiveness being paramount. I'm evaluating the planning of each day and each week, how the President is spending his time, seeing whether it's the proper balance, if he's paying attention to the important things and not getting distracted or off-track. I'm measuring how he handles the news cycle but more importantly how he manages public opinion. Most importantly, it's how the President keeps his head and make the right decisions and stay on track amidst the insane confluence of urgent crises the President has to handle. In this, Obama has exceeded even my expectations and has been truly exemplary - it's hard to say how he could have improved on his day-to-day management. He has done an excellent job as a politician, connecting with the American people, maintaining, deepening, and broadening his support. He has been almost superhuman in his ability to keep his cool and maintain the proper focus on all the crises that have popped up, to neither under-react nor over-react. To sum it up, he just really seems to "get it", somehow able to consistently do both what should be done and what the public wants him to do, which often seem to be mutually exclusive. He unmistakably knows what he's doing. He gets an A in this day-to-day plane.

The more disappointing element is Obama's performance in a medium-term plane, of choosing policies and personnel. This means the personnel and stated policies of the President in different fields, calibrated to their current level of importance. Right now, the most important people and policies relate to the economy - economic recovery, jobs, finance, and housing. Also significant are our war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are what the President is currently working on, the policies currently being enacted (or not being enacted). In all these areas, Obama has been a vast improvement from George W. Bush, but still pretty far where he needs to be. His shifts have not only been inadequately small, but I believe the Three Big Truths mean that the shifts are also unnecessarily small. In previous posts I have stated my concerns that the stimulus package wasn't nearly big enough, that his plan to save and create jobs is really inadequate to the massive demand of people in the country, that the banking plan is far too generous to the Wall Street fat cats, and that the housing plan isn't doing nearly enough to stem foreclosures. These inadequacies are related to my concerns about the makeup of the advisers and policies, both who they are and their relative importance. Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are clearly the most important drivers of policy, and their policies have not only been way out of whack in helping bankers far more than struggling people, but their bankers first advice has drowned out the (inadequately few) voices calling for far more focus on jobs and a bolder approach to finance and stimulating recovery. While the stimulus had some advances toward education, health care, and energy, by itself nothing major has been accomplished given the potential and the urgency - that is not Obama's fault because it's only been 100 days, but at this point they are not balancing out his Summers-induced disappointments with the economy. Meanwhile, Obama's policies in Iraq and especially Afghanistan are improvements but, as I have already discussed, still greatly concern me. The caveat is that I think the inadequacy of the shift from Bush on Iraq and Afghanistan is, unfortunately, more necessary due to the reality of the situation and the political situation. It is also balanced out by Obama's other strong foreign policy decisions, emphases, and symbolism which amount to a policy of their own. He gets a B-/B for this plane.

Obama has matched my expectations on the long-term plane, the overall direction of the country. And those expectations were extremely high. The symbolism of who Obama is - his race, his background, his emphasis on consensus and persuasion not bluster and posturing, his farsightedness, his completely different approach to the world, his completely different image in the world due to his background, his temperament, and his opposition to the Iraq War - all of this makes an enormous, if harder-to-measure, difference. His very existence as our President, setting aside any questions of policies or even over-arching ideology, is both consequence and cause of a truly momentous, earth-shattering shift in American history in a better direction. The inspiring example he sets for children and really for all Americans and all people in the world - as a role model, as someone who gives an entirely different conception of what's possible in our own lives and with our nation and world - will I think prove to have broad and deep effects. The generally admirable way Obama approaches politics - with much more emphasis on 1) what makes sense rather than labels and ideologies, 2) what will prove most effective and sustainable in the long run and not what's popular in the moment, and 3) bringing people in through hope rather than fear, appealing to the best in people through rational persuasion rather than the worst in people through demagoguery - all this is slowly but I believe significantly changing politics, which after all is how we make our important national decisions. Finally, Obama has begun laying the groundwork to take long-term advantage of the Three Big Truths, as his budget especially represents a decisive shift from the Reagan Era. His vision of our future, shifting from an economy built on sand to one built on rock, is exactly right, substantively and politically. His vision of where we need to go and why we need to go there comes almost unprecedentedly close to reaching my goal of a sustainable shift toward social democracy. This is especially true because he is, with great effectiveness despite the challenge, selling this major ideological shift as pragmatic and necessary, and not making ideological arguments. That is exactly the right way to create popular sustainable change. As the Strike and I have discussed, the best approach for getting the country where we want it to go is through the analogy of the frog in boiling water - don't just drop it in because the frog will scream, but instead imperceptibly but steadily increase the heat so the frog doesn't notice. At every stage, Obama should explain his policies as pragmatic and necessary, not ideological, but after 8 years we can step back and realize we've boiled the frog: i.e. shifted the country far toward a social democracy. Obama's performance on the long-term plane has matched my high hopes in his First 100 Days, and he gets a solid A for this element.

On the whole, then, evaluated against the standards I've set for him, Obama has had a very good, but not great, 100 Days. He gets a B+/A- in my book.

The Strike: A lot of the news media has come up with curious way to judge the Obama presidency. They always want to talk about whether he has been bipartisan, whether he has “shown good leadership” qualities, and whether he’s won the majority of news cycles etc. I have decided to go about things a bit differently. In judging the Obama Presidency, I will use three important criteria:

1. Have his policies made the average American’s life better and increased his or her opportunity to fulfill the American dream?

2. In his overall performance, has he improved his popularity and political capital enough that he has more room to enact bold policy change and he has he permanently shifted the views of the electorate?

3. Have his policies been bold and progressive enough to tackle the deep challenges facing our country given the current political climate?

On the first quality, I would give him very high marks. The stimulus package is directly impacting millions of Americans. Those who are unemployed have had their benefits extended. Those on Medicaid are seeing the effects of increased funding. A lot of jobs are being saved and created through infrastructure and clean energy projects. Middle-class Americans have a little extra money in their pay check these days, and can use it to help spur the economy. An additional 4 million children now have health insurance because President Obama signed the State Children’s Health Insurance bill. Thousands of young Americans will now have the opportunity to join Americorps, which will benefit the lives of millions around the country. This is the result of President Obama signing the Edward Kennedy Public Service Act. These are tangible things that affect the vast majority of Americans. All of this took place in 100 days. Could he have done more? Probably. I wish he could have created more jobs, and that his stimulus proposal was bigger. But this metric is about whether the average American, who pays no attention to what’s going on in Washington, has seen their lives improve in the last 100 days. I don’t see how you could argue against that progress. On this front, Obama receives an A-.

On the second criterion, Obama has also done enormously well. A remarkable 81% of Americans like the President personally. He has won over the American people with his candor, honesty and ambitiousness. A lot has been made in the mainstream media about how Obama’s personal popularity exceeds the popularity of his policies, as if this were some ominous sign. To me, this means that Obama has earned the public trust. Even if people haven’t agreed with liberal policies in the past, their trust in and like for Obama might allow them to give this President’s policies a chance. He has kept above the fray of petty Congressional fights without giving up any of his core policies or convictions. He has also created enormous goodwill around the world, which will undoubtedly make our country more secure. This quality may seem more symbolic than specific legislation, but this political capital could YIELD legislative progress in the future. I would give him an A, but since this goodwill’s fruit hasn’t quite born out yet, I’ll give him an A- on this as well.

The third criterion is where Obama has had the most trouble, in my view. Obama is very politically cautious, which may temporarily save him some scorn of self-proclaimed “moderates” and the media elite. It is not, however, good for the country. By hiring Wall Street hands like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, he has implicitly defended the very status quo his policies are trying to undo. Not coincidentally, his banking and financial policies have been underwhelming, to say the least. His penchant for caution has also caused him to water down proposals to appease his political opponents. I’m all for trying to build bipartisan consensus if you can. But if the other party’s sole intent is to tear you down, you should never yield one inch to them. Unfortunately, Obama has done that on numerous occasions, like when he took out stimulus money to refurbish the national mall because immature House Republicans were whining about it. It would be one thing if the American people were torn between Obama’s philosophy and the Republican alternative, but they’re not. The public is deeply distrustful of the Republican Party and Republican policies. Before giving him too low of a grade on this, we have to remember that everything he’s done is a 200% improvement over President Bush, and far better than any President in the last 40 years. Therefore, on this score, Obama receives a B.

I can’t just judge Obama objectively on these terms though. He has given me personally enormous hope and faith in our country. He has made me proud to be an American, and has restored my belief in the American dream. It wasn’t any particular policy or moment that gave me these feelings. It’s based on who he is and what he stands for. For that reason, in spite of a lot of the actions he has taken in the first 100 days, he is still an exceptional President in my book.

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