Can Obama Work Without a Script?

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Barack Obama gives a speech by Wa-J.
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By Matt Wells

Barack Obama has always peddled in "hope". His rhetoric of hope has always served him well, so much so that, in an era when hope was in short supply, his embodiment of the term helped carry him to the White House. But while hope may be a product popular with the voting masses, Obama is quickly learning that it has little to no value in the partisan trenches of the Washington political battlefield. The open question now is whether or not he has more to sell, or whether he is quickly running out of new marketing ideas.

This is a question that many of us dare not ask at the moment. After all, Obama has only been at the job for about a month. And no matter what he does, he is no George W. Bush. But gratefulness at the fact that he is not comparable to the worst president in American history will only take him so far. And there is a larger problem at hand, which Obama's team seems to only slowly be grasping: the Bush years, while they were bad, are becoming increasingly irrelevant in these quickly-changing times. That is to say, Obama may be better than W. Bush, and he may also be better than, say, Warren Harding, but that doesn't change a thing regarding his own performance in the top job.

Obama's performance as president so far has been largely panned by media from all sides of the political spectrum. Those on the left tend to give him a pass, however, and say that he is learning from his mistakes. But what evidence is there that this is in fact the case? A closer look at Obama's missteps, as well as his rise to the presidency, in fact reveals some potential causes for serious concern.

Among many minor blunders, Obama's most flagrant early missteps have involved the troubled passing of a $787 billion economic stimulus package. Much of the blame for the near-failure of this package to pass has been heaped on partisan Republicans in Congress. Out of all of the GOP representatives on Capitol Hill, only three Republican senators agreed to a modified version of the original package. Most grandstanded, whining and moaning about the mayhem that would ensue once the thing was signed. John McCain raised the "specter" of socialism. All good theatre, and all ugly displays of severe partisanship.

Obama can't control the actions of his opponents. The problem however, is this: what did he expect Congressional Republicans to do? The Republicans were outright embarrassed in the 2008 presidential and Congressional elections: Obama trounced McCain with ease, and the Democrats further increased their majorities in both houses of Congress. After nearly a decade and a half of ever-growing power, these losses hit the party and its supporters hard. Bid Obama and his coterie expect the party to just roll over and die after such a humiliation?

Such seems to be the case, at least in the opinion of MSNBC's Chuck Todd, who recently wrote a column entitled "Obama's Growing Pains" (http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/29062698/) which thoroughly criticized the White House administration's handling of the stimulus package's passage through Congress. To quote Todd, "the Obama team, starting with the president, certainly seemed a tad haughty, acting as if their lofty rhetoric was enough to cause Congress to bow and the stimulus bill to magically pass. Obviously, that’s not the way Washington works." Todd quotes his own colleague Andrea Mitchell, who suggests that the administration was poisoned by "an inauguration sugar high." In other words, Obama seemed to think the budget would pass, just because he wanted it to. Such concerns get at the heart of the true issue at hand: will Obama be able to handle himself better the next time he has to deal with unexpected problems, or will he flounder once again when things don't go as planned?

Every president has growing pains, to be sure. And Obama did adjust his expectations when the passage of the package was at risk. He began to take a tougher line against Congressional Republicans. He warned of dire "catastrophe" should the plan fail to pass. He played the necessary political games, and won. And for that, many continue to sing his praises.

There are two problems with the "growing pains" argument, however. One is that many of the presidents that experienced "growing pains" turned out to be lousy presidents, or at least presidents that failed to live up to expectations. One could make that argument with at least the last two Democratic leaders, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Clinton promised universal health care, failed, and later ended up agreeing to significantly slash welfare benefits. Carter was eager and earnest, but could not fix a broken economy, one not unlike our own. Both earn largely mixed reviews (at best) among those that rank and assess America's leaders.

The second problem, however, is more specifically relevant to Obama. As a student of presidential history, Obama has demonstrated a near-obsession with both Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. His inauguration was modeled on Lincoln's own journey from Illinois to Washington. His plans for his arrival in Washington, moreover, were modeled on Roosevelt's famed "100 days" plan when he himself took office in 1934. The problem with imitating history, however, is that history has already happened. The future is untidy and uncertain. And one has to be worried whether Obama can get over the past, and get a handle on the present.

An important question must be asked here: once this stimulus package is passed, where does Obama go from here? Obama's message of hope during his campaign run included promises of universal health-insurance coverage, energy independence and related environmental initiatives, a significant pullout from Iraq, a "pull-in" to Afghanistan, and an end to partisan bickering within Washington.

The bickering issue was a non-starter, something that Obama only slowly seemed to realize. When Republicans in Congress initially opposed his stimulus plan, he pointed out repeatedly that he had appointed Republicans to his own cabinet. Well, that's all well and good, but what kind of response did he expect to that? A big "thank you" and a sudden turnaround of years' worth of Congressional partisanship? The Republicans may be licking their wounds, but it would be foolish to think that they've changed their ways. They have profited from Obama's olive branches, but they won't return him any favours, point blank. It seems as if the president has learned this lesson, but where he goes from here is uncertain. People believed that Obama could in fact end partisanship in Washington. He can't.

As for his big spending projects, some have been tentatively worked into the current stimulus package. A few more dollars for health care here, a few more for "green initiatives" there. But these aren't the big, bold steps everyone was expecting. Yet $800 billion dollars has already been spent on this package alone, along with the $700 billion that the Bush administration pushed through on the bank bailout deal last year. Americans are bristling already at these mounting debts: would they really be willing to accede to more to carry out Obama's big plans?

As for Iraq and Afghanistan, we keep hearing how the administration is "studying" the relevant issues, and will unveil some grand piece of foreign policy strategy within weeks or months. Yet we heard the same rhetoric before Timothy Geithner's recent unveiling of a vague and amateurish "Financial Stability Plan," meant to be another attempt to stabilize America's housing and banking industries. The plan was long on words but short on specifics (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/02/10/BU1F15RN08.DTL&type=business). The stock market promptly plunged.

One might claim that it a stretch to link Geithner's flub with other matters pertaining to Obama and his administration. But, as Todd pointed out with the stimulus package issue, it appears that the administration thought that it could just send Geithner out to say a few choice words about banks and mortgages, and all would be well. One starts to detect a trend.

There are many strands here that need connecting. The way to do that is to consider how and why Obama was elected, and what this portends for the future.

Obama was elected in part because he was not W. Bush. But, more than that, Obama was really really good at not being W. Where the previous administration was menacing and threatening, Obama inspired with overflowing optimism. As a candidate, he very skillfully cashed in on his charisma. Hillary Clinton was not W. Bush either. But Obama was a lot better at not being him. He made people believe that the past eight years would soon be regarded as a
bad memory, a mistake easily rectified. He made Americans look at the past with shame, and look to the future with hope, with him as the leader and guardian of this hope.

The Bush years, however, are long gone. That is not a statement to be taken lightly. The years from 2001 to 2008 were dominated by post-9/11 foreign policy debacles, the disgrace of Hurricane Katrina, and the erosion of goodwill towards America around the globe. They were also largely years of economic prosperity. Stock market indexes crept back up to levels seen during the heyday of the late 90s, and went further still. Credit for houses and other toys was easy to come by. The toys themselves, particularly new home entertainment technology, flew off store shelves. Sure, gas prices were high, and the manufacturing sector was still troubled, but no era of prosperity is perfect. Besides, between playing with our iPods, cell phones, and Facebook pages, who had time to hear the bad news?

Those who did hear the bad news, however, believed that Obama could fix it all. And certainly in the early days of his tenure, he apparently seemed well on the road to doing that. The notorious Guantanamo prison in Cuba was slated to be shut down. Stem-cell research was once again receiving funding. Obama was being as un-Bush as could be, and the masses were delighted.

Again, there were, and are, two problems with this approach. The first is dealing with old issues that Bush was reluctant to touch, especially tricky ones such as Afghanistan. It will be tough for Obama to seem as saintly as compared to Bush when he is trucking soldiers into the country by the tens of thousands to fight a possibly un-winnable war. Related to this problem is the situation in Iraq, which, having been sidelined by the media, will be tough for Obama to handle without tarnishing his own reputation. Iraq has not been "fixed": instead, the media "solved" the problem of dealing with the war by not talking about it anymore. How will Obama delve back into that debacle and maintain his pristine image?

The second problem is that, on the domestic front, the economy looms large in a way that it never did during the Bush years, even when the tech bubble burst and Enron-style accounting fraud became a big-ticket news item. The economy was slowly emerging as the major issue of our present time during the campaign season, but Obama could easily efface it with his powerful messages of change and hope. When things got really bad and the credit crunch hit hard, he and his followers could easily blame the Republicans and their years of de-regulation legislation for the mess. After his election victory, however, the problem was in Obama's hands, like it or not.

To be fair, Obama began working with Congress even before his inauguration on a bill to deal with the new economic realities facing him and his administration (http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/12/03/america/green.php). Yet at the same time, he was gearing up for his grand, stage-managed entrance into Washington. It is here where we may find the ultimate problem with Obama's approach to the presidency up to this point: everything has to go by a script.

So while Bruce Springsteen and U2 were singing Obama to the White House, Obama himself seemed to be assuming that the politicos in Washington would sing his praises the moment he set foot in the Oval Office. This economic stimulus package, while perhaps a somewhat unexpected addition to the narrative he was crafting, was meant to slide in lockstep with the rest of the bells and whistles. It seems as if little thought was given to the somewhat obvious reality of the situation: that once in office, the theatrics would end. He could not wave a magic wand and get what he wanted. Washington was still Washington, and the world at large was as unpredictable as ever.

Obama was a great presidential candidate for his time. Entering the race in the heart of the Bush era, he represented everything that Bush opposed. Yet times have changed, and the image he crafted seems somewhat shopworn. In his early weeks in office, he and his administration still seem unable to grasp this. We hear of great plans being forged, of impending announcements that will astound the world. Obama still uses the same powerful rhetoric of hope and change that won him the presidency. The style is still strong, but the substance is starting to become a concern. Instead of high-minded talk of hope and renewal, let's hope that Obama and his administration learn how to speak in the language of nuts and bolts.

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