Obama the failure?

Russ Caditz-Peck

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There’s no doubt about it: President Obama’s first year has been rocky. In terms of tackling the large-scale reforms he was elected on: notably health care reform and climate change: Obama’s record remains sparse, especially in comparison to the remarkable optimism and expectations set forth in his campaign.

Roughly a year into his term, uncertainty looms for Obama voters. What to think of the Obama presidency thus far? Should we be angry? Content? Vaguely disillusioned?

Corporate Republicans and their Tea Party stooges: or is it now the other way around?: know where they stand. But for the rest of us, I offer a few words of advice:  Take a deep breath to recognize the progress we have seen, reject cynicism and stay focused on the big picture.

First: in order to contextualize Obama’s accomplishments: let’s acknowledge the historical “rockiness” of Democratic first years. As Hendrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker points out, with first years it’s “wise to keep one’s seat belt loosely fastened.” J.F.K went through the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Carter “gave away” the Panama Canal and Clinton dramatically botched gay rights. All three alienated Congress and failed to pass major health care reform (as has every Democrat since Harry Truman first proposed it). Only Johnson made major progress in his first year, primarily thanks to the tragic circumstances that put him in office.

Rockiness is to be expected. For his part, it appears that Obama has failed to craft a cohesive public message for his agenda (for instance, while all the parts of his health care bill remain widely popular, the bill as a whole has floundered) and focused too much on the ideal of congressional bipartisanship rather than actually passing his agenda.

So what exactly has Obama accomplished thus far, you ask? Here’s what potential cynics and second-guessers should remember:  Obama passed the largest economic recovery bill in American history and rescued the economy from the next Great Depression. Although the full impact of the crisis was not felt until months after the crash, the stimulus bill started spending within just weeks: and according to data released last month: has had incredible success:  It has added an estimated 1.8 million jobs already.

Obama passed a visionary federal budget, which has laid the groundwork for health care reform, climate change and so forth, and is considered by many the most progressive in half a century.

Obama has brought sanity to American foreign policy and changed America’s relationship with the world by rejecting the principles of neo-conservatism. Despite inheriting two blundering wars, he established: and kept: a schedule to withdraw from Iraq and ended the American policy of torture.

Obama has greatly increased federal funding for student loans, increased Pell Grants, funded stem cell research, expanded programs for children’s health care, filled the federal government with forward-thinking rather than nihilistic or anti-intellectual officials, passed a law to protect women from employment discrimination, passed a law to make it easier for workers to organize and more.

Second, despite trends towards cynicism and general disillusionment, let’s remember to stay focused on the big picture.

Here’s a tip that most D.C. pundits would rather you didn’t know: 99 percent of the theories they come up with are useless. As someone who enjoys theorizing about politics: and wouldn’t mind getting paid to do it: this is hard to admit. But the saga of American politics has never been about day-to-day analysis or month-to-month polling. In terms of who wins elections, it’s essentially only the conditions “on the ground” that matter. It’s always been about the big picture, about the well-being of the average American and passing the legislation necessary to ensure it.

Regardless of what the talking heads on Fox News or MSNBC may say: or even what the average voter tells a pollster on any given day: the record of what Americans care about is clear; they care about themselves, as they should. For the American voter, it’s not the small political fumbles that matter. It’s unemployment: barely under double-digits this month: that matters. It’s health care: with 46 million Americans still uninsured: that matters. History has shown that, especially during tough macroeconomic times, the moderate presidents who fail to fix the big stuff (see: Jimmy Carter) cannot win.

If he is to succeed, Obama will need our active support to pass his major agenda items. Obama has admirably stepped up and gone “all in”: this Monday he called for campaign-style telethons and door-knocking to raise support for health care reform. No, the bill’s not perfect. But it is much, much better than the status quo (it will expand insurance to 31 million Americans, dramatically lower costs, regulate “pre-existing conditions” and more) and many credibly contend that any future ambitions for the Obama’s presidency rests upon its passage.

Above all, now is the time to avoid cynicism. Cynicism is: and has always been: the easy way out, whether you’re too tired or too lazy to continue the push for reform.

Obama’s second year is shaping up to be more combative and potentially much more productive. We can’t wait for the next Obama to fix the urgent problems our nation faces. Now is the time for progressives to gear up for the long haul, focus on passing the “big stuff” and avoid letting the perfect: or really good: get in the way of the way better.