Obama, like past leaders, a slow starter


Happy first anniversary, Barack Obama. Although happy is probably the wrong word.

When he took the oath last Jan. 20
nearly one year ago — Obama reiterated his campaign promise to be a
transformational president who would cure our ills and cleanse our
politics. In his inauguration speech, he proclaimed “unity of purpose
over conflict and discord,” and an end to “the petty grievances … the
recriminations, and worn-out dogmas.”

How’s that all working out so far?

Part of the problem is that candidate Obama
overpromised. Democrats tend to do that sort of thing because they tend
to think big. Jimmy Carter sold himself during the ’76 campaign as a breath of fresh air who would craft energy reform and purge Washington of its lingering Watergate taint. He failed. Bill Clinton promised health-care reform and an end to partisan bickering. He failed.

They vowed to change Washington, but Washington changed them. Just like Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes, those Democratic presidents learned that the
job was really one long slog, punctuated by ups and downs. Obama is
learning this now. Millions of Americans who voted for him in 2008 are
now voicing disappointment and judging him harshly, precisely because
they didn’t expect another slog. They thought Obama would really be

The thing is, Americans always think the new guy
will be different. It’s in our character to fall in love all over again
with promises of a new dawn, a New Frontier, a Great Society, a New Freedom,
a New Deal, a New Covenant (Clinton’s short-lived slogan). But this is
a very tough country to govern — arguably harder than ever, given the
heightened ideological warfare that is exacerbated by the Internet —
which is why any promised new dawn is likely to be as enduring as the
New Coke.

Actually, a case can be made that Obama posted a
decent first year. He has taken health-care reform further than any
other president, and now stands a good chance of inking the most
far-reaching (albeit imperfect) redefinition of the American social
compact since Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security
law. His economic-stimulus plan has blunted the nation’s recessionary
free fall, at least according to most economists. He has set a new tone
in our dealings with the rest of the world, dialing down his
predecessor’s unilateralism. He signed an expansion of children’s
health insurance and a law making it easier for women to sue over
unfair wages.

But Obama has taken a hit in the polls, in part
because expectations were so high at the outset. Change was a great
campaign buzzword because it stoked turnout, especially among the
young. Now comes the reckoning. He’ll start his second year without
having put his name on any transformational legislation, and although
one can assign some of that blame to the Republicans, who are waging
permanent warfare against him, Obama had promised his most credulous
followers that he would somehow surmount such petty obstacles by dint
of his powerful office.

For many Americans, part of the frustration is that
Obama seems so ideologically elusive. The right sees him as a
liberal/radical/socialist/utopian, while the left sees him as a
corporate accommodationist who is all too willing to sell out liberal
principles. So many of us feel that we’d know him better if we could
just label him accurately. Yet he defies labels. He sets big goals, but
generally settles for compromises, and there is nothing very sexy about
accepting half a loaf.

That has been Obama’s approach to health reform, but he’s hardly the first president to elude labels and embrace pragmatism. Abraham Lincoln was reviled by partisans on all sides for precisely those reasons. To
get a taste of Lincoln’s thought process, here’s something he wrote in
1862: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do
it, and if I could save it by freeing all slaves, I would do it, and if
I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also
do that.” You think that guy would’ve stood firm on the health-care
public option?

Speaking of Lincoln, he basically achieved zip on Capitol Hill during his first year and was so ridiculed as a war leader that his own military commander, Gen. George McClellan, openly dismissed him as “a well-meaning baboon.”

Other presidents were notoriously slow starters. John F. Kennedy was hit with the Bay of Pigs debacle during his rookie year, he got
beaten up by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev at their first summit,
and his domestic ambitions were thwarted by a Democratic Congress.
Even FDR failed to remake America in his first year; although he did
blunt the banking crisis, most of the pillars of his first New Deal
were knocked out by the courts. He signed the aforementioned Social Security law during his third year, after taking heat from the left for compromising so much.

I’m therefore suggesting — at the risk of prompting
Obama-haters to spontaneously combust — that it may be too early to
render a decisive verdict on the new president.

While we all tend to marinate in the passions of the
moment, his presidency will hinge on what happens over time. We don’t
know how the benefits and costs of health reform will play out. We
don’t know how the war in Afghanistan
will play out, or whether he’ll be compelled to confront crises far
worse than the underpants bomber. We don’t yet know whether the jobs
will come back. All we do know is that vicious partisan strife will
continue as a way of life, impervious to his desire.

Ronald Reagan once said, “Politics is just like show
business. You have a hell of an opening, you coast for a while, you
have a hell of a closing.” One year after Obama’s helluva opening, the
Reagan formula might well prove to be a sufficient aspiration.

About the writer

Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at dpolman@phillynews.com; blog: http://www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.

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