Friday, October 07, 2011

Redeeming the Promise of '08

I am hardly one of those who regret their 2008 support of President Obama based on his performance in the job, or who condition their support for 2012.

Some criticism is justified, and I will get to that, but first, some deserved praise. His conduct of the most important area under his control, the diplomatic/military sphere, has earned a solid A grade.

International Wins
Last week he called for the trigger to be pulled on Anwar al-Awlaki, who imagined that he could threaten his native land safely from a desert retreat. There are legal issues about signing a finding authorizing his death by covert means, but this is another case where the result was fully justified. The previous example, last month's stunning victory by the Libyan rebels vindicated his middle-ground strategy there: encouraged by the U.N. and the Arab League, he chose to provide critical, timely support, preventing general reprisals and massacres, allowing the rebels the time to develop a winning strategy and overthrowing a bloody dictator. Most importantly, he achieved that success with minimal risk to American lives.

Back on the military side, Obama's administration won the big prize in May with the successful raid into Pakistan which took out Osama Bin Laden. He has successfully wound down the Iraq occupation, and he is on a path to achieve a reasonably successful extraction from the other inherited counterinsurgency quagmire, Afghanistan.

Not everything has gone well. Diplomatically, his policy toward Iran has not yet worked, and the country still poses a major destabilizing threat. With the critical nation of Pakistan the results are mixed, at best: the civilian regime is an ally, but a weak one, unable to overcome the nation's historic tendencies toward insubordinate security forces and regional troublemaking. There has been no progress toward resolution of the Israel-Palestine mess, which means more steps backwards. Finally, the illegal prison in Guantanamo has not been closed; though that is more a domestic failing, in the eyes of the world it's clearly a black eye on our reputation he hasn't been able to heal.

All these areas would be better served, though, from a continuation of Obama/Clinton handling rather than any foreseeable alternative. Hillary Clinton has been an excellent Secretary of State, and if she can be persuaded to serve out a second term, could rank as one of the best ever in the position.

Domestic Woes
As good as the advice, strategy, and results have been for most of the foreign/military projects abroad, that's how bad most of the domestic initiatives have been. The first responses to the economic crisis--the Bank bailout (actually before his inauguration, though passage would've been very difficult if he'd opposed them), the auto industry assistance, the stimulus plan--these were reasonable compromises made because the urgency of the situation did not allow for prolonged consideration. Some of it--the bailouts--achieved their immediate aims, and the stimulus was not a failure--just not quite enough of a boost (though it's questionable any amount would've been sufficient, and certainly doubtful if much more could've passed Congress).

The accomodative pattern from those early, critical acts was very evident in the signature domestic legislation of his first Congress, the Affordable Care Act. Here I disagree with the notion that speed was essential, or even possible; they were in a big hurry and it still took a year or more to bring to law, not to mention the legal challenges which will take about two years to resolve.

The piece missing from the legislation, which may end up being required if, as I see being quite likely, the Supreme Court rules that the mandate to buy private health insurance is beyond Congress' authority (and thus unconstitutional) is the public option. Unfortunately, in his zeal to get a bill done, I think that Obama and his advisers made a bad deal with the private insurers--no private option, and the insurers lobby would not try to block it.

The Christmas deal to keep the tax cuts in place was one made under duress: the House was just about to be taken over by a heavily Tea-flavored Republican majority. The deal extended the tax reductions for the wealthy and for the middle class, basically an unacceptable compromise. Worse was to come with the next big deal under duress, for the debt ceiling; though the Administration rejected the confrontational approach of challenging the need for the ceiling--something which might not have worked, the deal may still produce something acceptable in the form of the desired combination of cuts and revenue enhancements, but I wouldn't count upon it. As I feared, the roster of the membership of the "Gang of 12" supercommittee seems designed to continue the partisan logjam. What that will mean, though, is a set of mandatory cuts in both domestic programs and military spending--a sharing of pain, no real gain.

Obama's tax policy lacks a coherent direction. His December, 2010 extension of the tax cuts for the rich broke a campaign promise, one he didn't so much betray as reveal that he couldn't deliver. With the backing of friendly billionaire Warren Buffett, he has come up with a modest proposal to create a new Alternative Minimum Tax for those with income over $1 million. More complication, little likelihood of success--the AMT we already have is a headache, little more, and this one will never pass through the current Congress (I can hear it now: "if the rich--excuse me, 'job creators'--knew they had to pay tax, it wouldn't be worth making a million a year".) Obama seems to welcome the idea of a revision of the tax code, but isn't providing the kind of push it would need, no doubt because he doesn't want this House anywhere near it.

The worst, for me, has been temporizing on Obama's moral and value-based position as the best protector of our greatest possession, our natural resources. He is blocking regulations of ozone and greenhouse gas emissions proposed by one of his best Cabinet members, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. He also seems to be greasing the way for oil exploration off the Arctic coast, and relaxing protection of endangered species. This sort of behavior, favoring the coal, gas, and oil interests, is less than I expected; Ohio and Pennsylvania may be important for his re-election (West Virginia, Louisiana, Texas, Wyoming, Alaska and Kentucky are not) but I am not convinced that the voters of any of these states want Obama to gain them prosperity through the sacrifice of their natural inheritance.

Obama has finally thrown down the gauntlet to this Congress with his Jobs Act. It won't pass, but the strategy of challenging the Republicans to do something about unemployment may work in the long run. While the weakness of the field of possible/likely Republican opponents for 2012 means that Obama is likely to eke out a win without taking forceful positions moving from a cautious, centrist approach, only a strong battling stance as leader of his party would give the Democrats a chance of regaining control of Congress for a second Obama term. And, without that, that second Obama term is never going to fulfill the promise his candidacy, and his inauguration, originally promised--something his first term has clearly not done.

My standard is moderately high: I expect him to be the best President we have seen in my lifetime. It's still there to be achieved--which means he has not yet done so.

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