I have certainly been among a vocal group who have been critical of the Obama administration and some of their policies. I criticized their policy in Afghanistan. I have criticized their seeming lack of commitment to real health care reform. I have criticized the justice department for not going after the crooks who ran the last administration. I have been critical of their lack of focus on our crumbling public school system. I have been critical of the President turning his back on supporting the cause of gay and lesbian rights.
That being said, I am quite sure that the alternative would have been much, much worse. The Obama campaign was one which soared on the idea that Washington was broken. They made change the linchpin of their campaign and people attached their own hopes and dreams to that theme. However, the idealistic tone of the campaign has been replaced by the realism of trying to govern in this era of obstructionism. It was clear from day one that the Republicans had no intention to work with this President. Their leadership has always signaled that if Obama can get things done, regardless of whether they help the country, then it was a losing proposition for them. The Republican strategy has been to complain about any solutions offered by the Obama administration without offering any solutions of their own. They have lied and stoked their base into a frenzy and have to a great extent been able to control the message coming out of DC.
The Obama administration, for their part, has proceeded with a minimum of drama. As was the case during the campaign, they seem to be sure that their long term strategy will ultimately be successful. Their were many times during the primary and Presidential campaigns that I wanted them to strike back against their opponents. The Obama campaign never took the bait. They had a long term strategy and they basically never deviated from it regardless of the situation on the ground. The major exception being the speech on race that Obama was forced to give after the videos of Reverend Wright were released. I think that the ability to stick to a strategy and stay on message served the Obama campaign very well. I'm not sure that it works as well when it comes to running an administration and winning the hearts and minds of the public. During the campaigns, the enemy (so to speak), was clearly defined and embodied by an opponent. As President, the other side now has literally hundreds of opponents to deal with. A single strategy to defeat a single opponent simply does not work as well, when attacks are coming from everywhere. The White House needs to do a better job of getting their message out to the American public. They need to let people know exactly what they are doing to help them. They need to let people know how they are working to improve their lives. They need to let people know how different this administration is to the one that it followed.
The enthusiasm and hope that the supporters of the Obama campaign had, has been dulled by the consistent onslaught of negativity coming from the opposition. By allowing the Republicans to shape the message of the media, the Obama administration has given up their advantage. Now there is reason for some supporters to feel disillusioned, but for the most part I believe the disappointment comes from perception of the facts as opposed to the actual facts. This is a conflict between idealism and realism. Pragmatism is the place where dreams go to die, and dreams do die very hard indeed. After living through the nightmare of the two Bush Presidencies, the soaring oratory and big ideals of candidate Obama seemed like the answer to the dreams of so many. Supporters sent money, knocked on doors, stuffed envelopes, wrote impassioned blogs, made phone calls, talked to their friends and neighbors with the understanding that if Obama were elected, everything would be different. They would finally have someone in the White House who had the same agenda as they did. They would finally have someone in the White House who would take on the special interests. They would finally have a voice at the center of power that spoke for them after so many years in the wilderness. And after the pure exultation of election night, the reality of trying to bring change to Washington DC has smacked a lot of people in the face.
People have suggested that they will not be as enthusiastic about supporting the President the next time around. We already have polls suggesting that a huge majority of Republicans will be voting in the mid term elections while a bare majority of Democrats say the same thing. This feeling of malaise amongst Democrats and Independents who voted for Obama comes from how the message is being framed. Everything that has been done by this administration has been constantly criticized by the Republicans. From questioning Obama's birth certificate to suggesting that health care reform would lead to death panels killing older Americans, the ridiculous claims have come fast and furious from the opposition. The Obama administration has answered these claims, but never with the fervor or volume with which they were made and as we have seen over and over again it is the person who yells the loudest that gets the most attention.
The Obama administration has retained its campaign strategy of sticking to the agenda and not letting the outside noise distract them. The health care debate is a good example of that. I wrote an article back in August that suggested that the White House knew all along where this debate would turn out and that everything that happened along the way was simply window dressing. The administration insisted on first trying to get a bipartisan agreement on health care reform. Looking back (and even at the time) most will admit that this was a waste of time. However the President had promised during his campaign that he would seek to find middle ground with the opposition and this was the first high profile policy debate that would test this promise. We may look back now and say that the first five months of the health care debate were wasted in an attempt to find some or any Republican support, but the President was simply fulfilling a promise made to the American people. The President's supporters on the left have railed about the fact that single payer was never on the table, however candidate Obama always said that we would have to work within the private health insurance system. Some have simply forgotten that point or assumed that the President was just saying what he needed to say. I am now sure that the Obama administration always knew that the debate over health care reform was going to come down to a fight between Democratic Senators. The White House was secure in the fact that they could achieve health insurance reform but were less sure about what other health care reform could be achieved given the deep divisions within the party.
There is nothing wrong with a long term approach or in being able to anticipate the outcome of a debate. However since most people in the country are not privy to the inner workings of the White House, their attitude comes off as extremely nonchalant. To the outsider it may look like the White House was not fully engaged in the debate or that they did not have a hand in the outcome. I'm sure that neither could be further from the truth. The seeming lack of a sense of urgency from the White House is just a manifestation of the "no drama Obama" strategy from the campaign. And while this approach may indeed work well in the long run, in the short term it leaves those who worked so hard and invested so much in this campaign, feeling a little cold. The idealism of the campaign has now run head on into the reality of actually running the country and fending off attacks from outside and inside the party.
Idealism is a necessary part of the political process. Without high ideals, even baby steps are never taken. It took this country 100 years after the slaves were released to produce a piece of legislation that guaranteed the rights of the descendants of those freed slaves. None of that would have come about without the idealism of those who believed that the country should and would do better. But just think of how many people worked and believed and tried to bring about some semblance of equality, only to die without seemingly ever moving the needle. Our ideas and our ideals are what give us hope that tomorrow will be better than today. The campaign of Barack Obama galvanized those ideas and ideals into one recognizable force. It would have been impossible for the Presidency of Barack Obama to live up to the numerous dreams that were built into the smiles and tears of those who celebrated that victory last November.
But I would ask those who are wavering in their enthusiasm for the President to define exactly what is it that he has done that is contrary to what he said he would do. He will increase the level of troops in Afghanistan, as he said he would do. He has worked to bring about the first meaningful health insurance reform ever enacted, as he said he would do. He has guaranteed health care for millions of children around the country. The stimulus package helped stave off a potential depression. He has helped to rehabilitate the reputation of the United States in the international community. He has tried to move forward on climate change. There are still many more issues to deal with. Education, the deficit, job creation, terrorism, etc., etc., but there are still three years left in his administration. It would be unfair to judge someone after a job is only 1/4 completed. It would be like complaining that the trim isn't done after painters were only 1/4 through the job of painting your house. I am willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt on most of the issues that he has yet to focus on. I am sure that he has a four year strategy in place. Perhaps he focuses on education next year. Perhaps he decided that education reform was best handled in an election year because it should be universally popular. Perhaps he's decided to wait until his third year to tackle "don't ask, don't tell", because he knows it is a potentially divisive issue. The President and the people around him are smarter than I am and while I can get fairly impatient at times, I have to believe that every scenario has been discussed and planned for.
The Obama administration must do a better job of getting their message out to the people. They cannot lay back in the hope that eventually the news of the day will turn in their favor. It is a fact that 20,000 teachers have jobs here in New York because of the stimulus money. Why don't more people know that? Given the state of the public schools here in NY, I can't imagine the chaos that would have ensued if the number of teachers and administrators had to be decreased by 1/3. The White House should be pointing to that number and to those like it around the country to show exactly what the stimulus money is doing. Don't just site numbers like 1.4 million jobs saved or created. What does that mean? How do you quantify that number? The Republicans have attacked that number as bogus. Well if you actually show real people in real jobs that would not have existed without the stimulus, it makes it harder to refute. I'm sure the people on Fox would never report about the number of state employees who still have jobs because of the stimulus, but if the White House made more of a point of emphasizing these positives, I'm sure the message that is reaching the public would change.
Image via WikipediaIdealism and reality can coexist quite comfortably among the supporters of the President. Idealism is the engine that drives realism. Idealism provides the dreams, realism provides the policy. The next three years are going to be driven by the hopes and dreams of those who voted on that fateful day last November. Those dreams may not always be paid off in full, but I believe that we can rest assured that will be addressed in the full light of day. Every dream and every hope can't be addressed immediately and it is up to those who dreamt and hoped for something better to allow this administration the time it needs to work toward those goals. I will probably still be impatient at the pace of Washington DC, but there is nothing that can be done about that. I will probably still write angry articles about the Obama administration from time to time, but then idealism is almost never practical.