Obama and Me

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on November 2, 2010

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The vacuousness of this article notwithstanding, I can partially identify with the “nebulous” reasons for wanting to like the President. In my case, as a onetime Hyde Parker who still has very strong ties to the community, who probably knows, and likes a lot of the people the President and his family know and like, who went to the same school that the Obama children went to (prior to their move to Washington, DC), and then stayed in Hyde Park for college and graduate school at a University which once employed the President and the First Lady, I rather identify with the President, despite our political differences. I am sure that a lot of this is due to tribalism; one wants those from one’s hometown and neighborhood to do well, and one feels a sense of pride when they do. I certainly never expected that a Hyde Parker–one who knows many of the people in my social circle–would be elected President of the United States, and it remains gobsmacking that it happened. (Why wasn’t Hyde Park this exciting when I was growing up?)

The President certainly has his good qualities. He is undoubtedly quite smart, even if he may not be as smart as he thinks he is. He is undoubtedly a good politician, even if Bill Clinton may well have proven that he was always better than President Obama at playing the political game. Clinton doesn’t win out in all of the categories of comparison; the current President certainly appears more sane and controlled than did his predecessor, and his family is certainly more functional. It is, I am certain, at least in part a testament to him that this is the case, and the fact that the President appears to have worked so hard to create a functional home life–especially after having been raised in a family where Barack Obama, Sr. was AWOL, and eventually made a wreck of his life–is certainly laudable.

Moving on, I am certain that President Obama loves his country, and means to do well by it. I am also certain–amazing that this actually has to be said–that he is the legitimate President of the United States, and so, our profound political differences notwithstanding, I call him “my President,” just as I called both Bushes, and Ronald Reagan “my President” when each was in office.

Where the President has gone wrong, in my view, has nothing to do with his intentions. Indeed, if I were to judge people and policies solely by intentions, I would find myself firmly on the port side of the political spectrum. I am happy and willing to state that I believe the President’s intentions to be laudable, but it is results that matter. The stimulus has failed to turn around the economy; I know that supporters of the stimulus claim that it stopped a bad situation from becoming worse, and that if only we had more stimulus, things would have been better, but the Administration and its allies failed to push for the kind of stimulus that really would have made a difference. Significant quantitative easing on the part of the Fed could have been advocated in place of the ineffective $787 billion stimulus package, the money infused into the economy would have been greater, the rate of infusion would have been faster, the projects affected would have been able to get off the ground more quickly, deflation would have been more effectively combated, and the budget deficit and the national debt would not have increased. The health care bill is increasingly looking to be a shambles, and its passage was engineered by an Administration and Congressional allies who promised us that the best time to learn about the details in the bill was after the bill was passed, and signed into law. For the first time in American history, the commerce power, and the taxing and spending power afforded to Congress in Art. I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution was used to force Americans to buy a product from private companies. If that doesn’t shock and worry people, it should; rarely, if ever, have Congressional powers been so abused. Other well-meaning Obama initiatives, like new rules for student loans look to have disastrous consequences. If only the Administration’s policy results were as good as its policy intentions, I would gladly pronounce myself a fan. Alas, while President Obama seems like a good enough person with whom to have a beer summit, one is forced to worry about any effort on his part to lead economic and foreign policy summits.

Speaking of foreign policy, this Administration has decided to withdraw us from Iraq on a timetable based not on conditions on the ground, but on a campaign promise made by the President to the base of his party in 2008. It proposes to do the same thing in Afghanistan, leading even proponents of the American effort in the region to wonder what the point is. I continue to support a surge in Afghanistan–and the President’s strategy of supporting a surge and the implementation of a counterinsurgency effort–because I believe that vital American interests are at stake. But I do so in the hope that the Administration will back away from its pledge to begin a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan come July, 2011. To be sure, the President now tells us that July, 2011 will only serve as the beginning of an American withdrawal, and that the speed of any withdrawal will depend on conditions on the ground, but one wonders whether he will keep to that pledge–especially considering the impending departure of Secretary Gates in 2011. So long as Secretary Gates remains, I believe that he will be able to provide the kind of leadership necessary to push back against the likes of Vice President Biden, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and others–including the President–who may be inclined to leave Afghanistan too early. But that leadership simply may not remain in the upper echelons of the U.S. government for long, and it is doubtful that it will be supplemented by anyone who might be selected to replace Secretary Gates.

Staying within the foreign policy realm, this Administration continues to dither in place of offering a coherent, specific, detailed, and intelligent grand strategy mapping out how the United States can best deal with China, and Russia, even as both countries press hegemonic ambitions that run counter to American interests. No one pretends that there isn’t a power imbalance between the United States on one hand, and China and Russia on the other. Nevertheless, the power competition is getting more intense, and in place of facing up to it, and addressing it, the Obama Administration seems lost. I make allowances for the fact that the Middle East peace process is notorious for frustrating Presidents and administrations, but there has been almost complete stasis when it comes to the peace process, and despite its promises to the contrary, the Obama Administration has been able to do nothing to jump start it. As for the Administration’s policies concerning Iran, it missed its chance to support what might have been–and what may eventually be (though without the Administration’s help)–a vibrant pro-democracy movement. In doing so, the Administration failed to take advantage of an opportunity to further isolate the Khamene’i/Ahmadinejad regime for its human rights abuses, enhance the isolation by harping on the regime’s support for international terrorism, and use the regime’s isolation to wring significant concessions regarding the nuclear issue.

Like Clive Crook, I think that many of the Obama Administration’s political problems stem from his relationship with “[t]he whining utopian left.” I continue to be shocked by the fact that liberals are unsatisfied by massive government intervention in health care, massive Keynesian intervention in the economy, and a sweeping financial service reform bill; flawed though I believe those pieces of legislation may be, they were on the wish list of just about every liberal for decades on end, and they were delivered by the Obama Administration. If I were a liberal, I would be ecstatic that the United States currently has a President who can fulfill so much of the Democratic agenda, and while not everything on the Democratic agenda has been delivered on, a tremendous amount has. I continue to respect the President’s political skills in having been able to pass the legislation he has passed, and I think that many liberals are shooting themselves, and their cause, in both feet by not being as appreciative as they are.

At the end of the day, however, the Obama Administration is the primary cause of its own problems, and whatever identification I may feel with the President across a vast political divide has to give way to my belief–unwelcome though that belief is even to me–that the Administration has failed on multiple policy fronts. Barack Obama remains my President (at least until January 20, 2013, at which point, we may have a change in personnel), and I wish him well for the country’s sake (as he would likely hope that I do). But while this President and his Administration may eventually regain his/its political and policy bearings, right now, it looks to be overmatched by events of the day. That finding, as well as anything else, is likely to explain the expected results once the votes being cast today are counted this evening.

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