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Big Problems, Small President

June 15, 2010

by Robert S. Becker
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
June 14, 2010

In 2004, John Kerry, a genuine war hero with a surprisingly consistent voting record, was mercilessly (and unfairly) ridiculed for his gaffe, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion [Iraq war supplement] before I voted against it.”  Though entirely about Senate procedure, not war support, this celebrated flip-flop did him in, making him appear weak.

Yet compared to today’s president, Kerry is a blaze of consistency, for Obama has been for (or against) nearly every issue of importance he’s now against (or for).  No wonder David M. Green offers his biting wisecrack of a title, “I Can’t Wait For Barack Obama To Become President.”  My head swirls just tracking what no longer qualifies as mere flip-flops but an array of upside-down, dipsy-doodle, double reverses.  Any more backsliding and “turnabout is fair play” becomes Obama’s next campaign motto.   Irony on “reform” has its limits.

In 2002, in a minor speech, Obama criticized Iraq as Bush’s “dumb war,” then parlayed this anti-war declaration to become a faux “peace candidate” against “hawkish” Hillary.  Obama afterwards did vote for war funding, then against it, campaigned to end the war in Iraq and now authorizes force to “win” in Afghanistan, though “winning” competes with WMDs in invisibility.  In short, when Iraq and Afghanistan were “dumb” wars the candidate opposed them; now owning both wars, the peace candidate inches out of Iraq while making Afghanistan a civilian killing field for predatory drones.  “Predatory” and “drone”  qualify a curious peace candidate now zealously increasing an already bloated, misguided defense budget.

Pragmatism or Contradiction?

Ditto on bank reform, as Obama supported both Bush’s TARP and his bailout trillions, often boasting how Wall Street CEOs, such great guys, so talented, deserve big power and salaries.  But when the public revolted against saving Wall Street while neglecting Main Street, and those not so bright CEOs purloined bonuses swelled by government subsidies, the president rose up against greedy and dangerous banksters.  Yet rhetoric delivered no change, nor does the compromised financial “reform” package underway promise checks and balances.  So, you might say Obama was for big CEOs until he was against them; you might say he was for big bailouts until he got cold feet, though too little, too late.  Does he have any principles, other than “pragmatism”?

Campaigning against the Bush White House, the impassioned president chastised utter incompetence, plus wholesale violations of civil rights, employment rights (both Valerie Plame’s and federal prosecutors’), and prisoners’ rights.  He called for less secrecy and greater transparency; he called to close Gitmo; he called to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  If we’re lucky, well into his third year, homosexuality may no longer be a crime for patriots in the military.  Forget the rest.

On energy, Obama the Great Planner talks up not just energy independence but ONE comprehensive, integrated, co-ordinated, long-range, all-world plan to achieve it.  Then remember he voted for Dick Cheney’s industry-friendly, crony capitalism energy bill.  So, what do we get instead of planning: badly-regulated oil drilling, more oceanic drilling, nods to alternative energy and conservation (home insulation, not less usage), all scattered among disconnected, quarter-fixes?

Is Ethanol Not Yet King?

Oh yeah, Obama likes ethanol and nuclear power, too, though no one knows how to energize vegetable matter without costing more power than you gain – and as yet nuclear isn’t fail-safe, nor is radioactive waste disposal resolved.  So, you might say Obama was for partial energy fixes, while reinforcing all the major entrenched industries, then seemingly against big oil, big energy models, and now reluctantly gives up offshore drilling (or does he, changing every week?).  Where’s the grand design, where’s the big answer to big tasks?

The list goes on as candidate Obama pitched national infrastructure restoration, like FDR’s, and yet quick fix programs stay with shovel-ready jobs (though few are happening efficiently).  On Katrina, Obama eviscerated Bush’s negligence and callousness yet few brag about the president’s Gulf timing, focus, or problem-solving.  And finally, against Hillary, he defended the public option as the best way to restrain costs and make health insurance reform honest.  But that choice was never pushed, frittered away in vacuous negotiations, talked about oh so briefly, then abandoned.  So, you’d be absolutely right to say Obama was strongly for the public option before he dumped it, sadly without a fight.   Perhaps it was never passable but no thanks to the president and his chief of staff Emanuel for leaving the field of battle.

Usually, presidents go down with a bang, not a whimper.  Overrides of dramatic vetoes by Congress, battlefield losses, horrendous scandals, indefensible staff blunders, or dramatic electoral losses.  Well, we have plenty of the last:  the (incumbent) loser column for favored White House candidates is dismal.

Big Promise, Small President

Jimmy Carter lost face because of impossible economic conditions and an unsuccessful Iranian hostage gamble, Reagan’s credibility dissipated when the Iran-Contra scandal exploded, Bush I unwisely promised tax relief (then reversed), and Bill Clinton –  well, between the health care debacle and kiddy sex spectacle – okay, he for one outlasted his gaffes.  W. stumbled on Katrina but he was already damaged goods because his administration broke the record for blunders.

But none of these besmirched leaders quite matches Obama’s fusion of wimpy and whimper, what Dana Milbank presents as 1) not acting, 2) then apologizing for it, 3) all the while decorating the “East Room with wuddas, cuddas and shuddas.”  Readiness to apologize is a good thing but, really, it can be overdone if you’re trying to make burned-out skeptics believe their government can work.  Somehow, faux reassurances don’t wash, nor would manufactured anger: competence is all – and action that matters is AWOL.  Why not at least identify Bush-Cheney’s inexcusable, uninvestigated responsibility?

This candidate promised to be a big president, and the daunting dilemmas at his doorstep matched his vaunted ambition.  But instead, we get dilly-dallying and contradiction, a slew of campaign betrayals and the inability or unwillingness to find a hill to die on – to show what fighting (or decision-making or leadership) really mean.  Worst of all, on major challenges, we get small, slow, wary, and partial – which over time acts against big, bold, and systemic reform.  I fear what we see is what we get.  More’s the pity.


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