Thursday, October 29, 2009

Obama: Must Do Better

Barrack Obama is increasingly looking like the rookie Senator from Chicago, acting in the role of President. Despite the hoopla and ballyhoo surrounding his historic election, many now see Obama as “on probation” and the report card shows that he is potentially a failing President.

Obama has proposed just one specific piece of legislation and a budget. The legislation was the $787 billion dollar stimulus package he insisted on when he arrived in office and the budget is one which takes the US so deeply into debt based financing as to carry the potential of destabilising the world’s bond markets and forcing major cuts in US spending. Now that the US is officially out of recession, he may begin to claim that the stimulus funds were the critical ingredient in ensuring this quick recovery, despite the lack of evidence in support of this thesis. Whatever the merits of the theory that stimulus funds “saved” the US economy, the reality is that these same funds may also impair growth.

Indeed, the economic strategy being pursued by Obama is difficult to fathom. In less than a year in office, Obama has tripled the deficit and sent shivers down the bond market traders who have to find buyers for several billion dollars of government bonds each working day. The debt will rise and his plan to curtail government spending once the recession is over and growth returns to the economy looks, at best, wishful thinking and at worst, deceitful. Few economists, with the notable exception of Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, think that there is a strategy at all. Whatever the economic framework, it is threatened daily by new commitments and suggestions coming directly from Obama.

Obama’s desire to see health care reform is, to put it bluntly, a shambles. Rather than propose anything, he left the work of drafting legislation to Nancy Pelosi and her left-leaning friends in the House of Representatives. When the backlash came, Pelosi is hidden away and Obama hits the campaign train and begins the work of community organizing to try and get something passed so that it can appear as if reform has taken place. The so-called “public option”, which involves government managed insurance scheme, has been “in”, “out” and doing the hokey-cokey for weeks now (it is “in” the Senate bill at the time of writing, but may be dropped given the opposition my maverick sometimes Democrat Joe Lieberman) and exactly what the bill will change is as yet unclear. Not exactly an example of focused leadership.

His other big agenda item, climate change legislation, has been left to Senator John Kerry to develop and promote. This is a mistake. He denies that cap and trade has anything to do with government, thinks that the world is so imperilled by CO2 and that “science is telling us what to do” and is not at all clear on the socio-economic implications of his own bill. The Waxman Bill, another version of the same thing, is also on the rocks – facing hundreds of amendments in the Senate and a filibuster by republicans. Recognizing that the global summit on climate change in Copenhagen is a bust, Obama has repositioned this whole initiative in terms of green energy and energy security. This file is also a shambles.

Then there is Afghanistan. Not an easy issue for any President or Prime Minister to tackle, as Stephen Harper and Gordon Brown can attest. Nonetheless, Obama has to make a decision about whether or not he is supporting a surge and transferring troops who are now withdrawing from Iraq into Afghanistan. He also has to work behind the scenes to ensure that the election results from the run-off election are credible, whoever wins. Obama is taking his time. His Vice President, who rarely has both feet on the ground since at least one of them will be in his mouth, is opposed to the surge. His defence team are for it. The people seem, by and large, against being in Afghanistan. Obama’s response is to dither and wait. Another shambles.

Obama’s approval ratings have fallen twelve points since he became President. This despite, or perhaps because of, his almost daily appearance on television. Obama knows how to campaign and win votes, which is why he is out supporting mid-term electoral candidates across the US. But campaigning and governing through focused leadership are two different things. He may want to appeal directly to the American people so that they can influence the congress, but what is in fact happening is that his appeals for community action and producing more questions about his leadership and no meaningful results in congress. His campaigning is seen as a way of getting some “relief” from actually doing the job of President of the United States.

If the people could write a report card right now for Obama it would probably say that he is a strong and effective communicator, a solid campaigner and an imaginer. He is not yet proven himself to be an effective President of the United States. In the immortal phrasing of the millions of teachers who write report cards around the world “could do better” comes to mind. Indeed, for him to fulfill the promises he made at the time of his election, “must do better” should replace “yes we can” as his signature phrase.

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