Something is happening that is going under a lot of people’s radar. Barack Obama is slowly showing himself to be one of the most effective Presidents in recent history, with a style likely to go down in history. Remember: you heard it here first.
It doesn’t seem that way when you read the newspapers now. The conservative press is falling over itself trying to sell a narrative to the public that Obama is ineffective. As such, they may be fooling themselves into missing what should give them pause: Obama is making changes that cannot be easily undone, and setting himself up for ongoing success. His Presidency may end up more successful than even his campaign.
Since that doesn’t seem to be a common view right now — the left is sour that change hasn’t gone fast and far enough, and the right is pointing to low approval ratings and fantasizing about big gains in 2010. But consider the issues that have dominated this year:
1. A major economic stimulus of a size and proportion that has not been seen outside of war time. This package saved states from insolvency, and probably will lead to a spurt of economic growth that will serve the President well come 2012. Along with the repercussions from the unpopular bailouts, it also has re-defined the government’s role in the economy. Who would have thought that the Executive Branch could demand lower pay for big financial executives? That aspect won’t last, and banks are quickly paying the government back (which will also be good political news for Obama) to regain control, but as a whole the political economy will never be the same.
2. Health care reform. In the Democratic primary Clinton and Obama fell all over themselves in promising comprehensive and significant change. Of course, that was never realistic. Congress must pass health care reform, and those with a vested interest in the status quo have massive power and lobbying clout. President Clinton was surprised by the blowback from his 1993-4 effort, and when it collapsed in defeat one got the sense that the President called his staff to the oval office and said “let us never speak of this again.” Health care reform was dead.
It could still fall apart in the next week, but Obama seems to have cajoled and guided from afar a Congressional compromise that gets the most signficant reform possible to pass. To those on the left who agree with Howard Dean that this is a farce and a gift to big health business, I’d say — yes, that’s how it appears now. Those groups have so much power that you will NEVER ram anything through that will significantly undermine them. Never. Big money dominates in both parties, and corporations run America far more than bureaucracies. Politics is the art of the possible. But unlike Clinton, Obama kept the issue alive. He likely will get reform. And incrementally he can tweak the system, or when a crisis comes up take a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy to the various interest groups. They might unite to defeat a big infrastructure change, but if he can lure them into accepting one they see as “not so bad,” he can later focus on one big interest group at a time. It may take years, even beyond his administration, but Obama could be laying the framework for the most fundamental change in American politics since the new deal. It looks like he’ll pull it off, persisting despite attacks from the right and left. It’s pragmatic, persistent, Machiavellian, and the kind of leadership the Democrats haven’t had for a long time.
3. Climate Change. First the drama — the talks are falling apart in Copenhagen, and Obama flies in, holds late night meetings, and saves the conference with a “meaningful deal.” Environmental groups are upset the deal doesn’t go far enough, and the right is relieved that it’s mostly a deal in principle. But besides emerging with his reputation enhanced, Obama has kept the issue alive, able again to be built upon step by step. Remember, the Senate in principle voted 95-5 against a climate change treaty back during the Clinton years. This is another issue where strong, powerful interests and a massive well funded right wing disinformation strategy is attacking those wanting to aggressively cut CO2 emissions. If the talks had failed completely, Obama would see this issue become mission impossible — he could have still talked a good game, but it would have gotten much harder to make anything happen.
The incremental approach is also seen in the recent EPA announcement that increased CO2 emissions is a health hazard, giving the EPA the capacity to regulate it. That is just a first step — if it went too far and tried to impose harsh regulations right away, there would be a massive push back from Congress, and Obama would lose. Now he can slowly coordinate global agreements and slight changes in US regulations, perhaps cajoling Congress to make its own regulations to make sure the EPA doesn’t go “too far.” In any event, this issue has more landmines in the American political landscape than health care, yet Obama is shepherding in the only kind of change possible: gradual, incremental, and yet potentially foundational.
4. Foreign Policy. Obama sent a clear signal to the Pentagon and foreign policy establishment that he was not a push over. They tried to send him a range of plans for an open ended mission on Afghanistan. He rejected it, and ignored pressure to make his decision faster, even as the former Vice President said he was “dithering.” He didn’t let that hurry his pace until he was satisfied with his decision. He also didn’t go the easy route and appease the left in his own party by simply removing the troops and dramatically redefining the mission. Even as we continue apace to leave Iraq, Obama is setting lup a withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On top of that, he’s undertaking new initiatives everywhere from the Mideast to our relationships with China and Russia, redesigning foreign policy gradually, but so far with impressive results. He didn’t let the anticipated political backlash stop him from canceling a missile defense shield set for Poland and the Czech Republic. He has signaled that the US is not going to provide defense for the world, and will work on more equal grounds with the EU, Russia and China. On economic issues this has paid off — China has done things that made the economy in the US less in peril. Russia has signaled new possibilities on START. More importantly, there is a sense that all powers want to try to bring stability to troubled regions, a true multilateralism.
Seriously, step back and think about it. A massive stimulus package with profound implications, a major health care reform act (still unfinished — if it fails this whole analysis is weakened), and small progress on climate change, but in a way that keeps the issue alive. He’s embraced a foreign policy moving away from the kind of arrogant self-importance of the past to one that is cooperative and yet principled. Issues that stymied Clinton, other Presidents and Democratic leaders, are being pushed effectively by Obama.
Those who thought Obama meant quick change are disappointed. But as a political scientist, I find myself pleasantly surprised by his pragmatism, efficacy, and recognition that politics is not about short term “wins,” but long term change. That gives me a real sense of optimism moving forward — more optimism now than in December 2008, even though the country as a whole was more optimistic about Obama at that point. He’s accomplished a lot on issues that usually halt Democrats dead in their tracks. And he’s slogging forward. But if you’re one of those on the left disappointed in Obama so far, or on the right convinced that he’s already failed, you may want to withhold judgment a little longer.