Obama and the Democrats are surely taking their lumps these days. Although some of the trauma is self-inflicted, much of it is the direct result of a systematic Republican plan to block his every initiative and undermine his popular support. It’s working.
The fact is that even as he has been steadily losing ground in the polls, he has remarkable accomplishments on the legislative front. Obviously health care reform was a goal that had eluded every president since Truman. We progressives were not pleased to lose on the principle of a single-payer system, and on multiple other issues, but the fact remains that we have a new system in place that will get coverage to millions who now lack it, and will exert some control over costs. Republicans, should they gain control of Congress this year, will surely try to repeal this historic achievement. They may even succeed in eliminating the mandate that individuals must have coverage or pay a fine. The problem with that is that it is the key to the system’s financial viability. If we must insure the sick, while the healthy can opt out, there is no way to control costs.
The need for deficit spending to stimulate the flagging economy was so uncontroversial among economists that even George W. Bush bought it. The TARP program was adopted under Bush, and was supplemented by further legislation adopted under Obama. As bad as the economy is, there is no doubt it would be much worse without this federal spending. The Republicans have been making a big deal over the federal deficit, but they are the same people who erased the Clinton surpluses with massive tax cuts and runaway military spending. Their recipe this time is the same: there is no way they could significantly reduce the deficit if they implement new tax cuts and new military spending. There are not enough discretionary domestic programs to cut.
The current Great Recession was a direct result of the massive deregulation of the economy carried out over a generation by both parties. Obama recently signed the Wall Street Financial Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which will bring needed re-regulation and consumer protection to this sector. Again the Republicans have been completely hostile to the whole idea. Should they regain power, expect them to repeal it.
Such recovery as we have seen so far has been of little benefit to the unemployed and underemployed, including increasing numbers who have given up looking. The Democrats have finally succeeded in pushing through an extension of unemployment benefits, which is not only good for the individuals receiving the funds, but also filters into the larger economy. True to form the Republicans did everything they could to stop it, on grounds that it would worsen the deficit. At the same time, they keep insisting on perpetuating the Bush tax cuts, even though that would inevitably also worsen the deficit, while helping only the rich.
Thus Obama has significant accomplishments on the legislative front. He’s also recently reaffirmed that we are on track to end combat operations in Iraq this month, under terms of an agreement with the Iraqi government that was concluded by the Bush administration. Republicans are wary about this because they seem to want an indefinite combat commitment in that country, even though there was no sound rationale for the original invasion in 2003.
While Obama has resisted progressive and liberal calls (along with some conservatives like George Will) to end the war in Afghanistan, he has established a policy and plan to end our commitment there. Here too Republicans are critical because they don’t want us to end our military presence there, no matter the cost or the duration. If the Republicans regain power, we will be in Afghanistan indefinitely, or until we lose, as the Soviets did before us.
Many challenges yet remain for Obama and the Democrats. Reviving the economy is foremost: even if the Republicans’ policies would just dig the hole deeper, it is not clear that the Democrats have all the answers to this complex issue. Dealing with global warming is essential, though as an issue it has been allowed to languish so far. Getting a handle on the BP oil blowout is urgent—and Obama needs to be seen as getting a handle on it.
The Republicans have succeeded in putting on the agenda two issues that ought not be issues: immigration and tax cuts. On the latter, Obama has the advantage since the Bush tax cuts lapse unless Congress does something. He needs to make the case for letting the cuts lapse for upper income people, and fight Republican attempts to deceive the middle class, as they did a decade ago.
On immigration, Obama faces an orchestrated demand for draconian enforcement, but a resistance to serious reform. Obama should not shrink from making proposals to make our immigration system more rational and fair. That should include more opportunities for people to come here legally, such as temporary worker visas.
Overall, Obama has been successful as the leader of Washington. Where he is failing is as the leader of the country. That’s a surprise, given his short political career, and his very impressive rhetorical skills.
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University