Long: Obama’s early achievements disguise actual inability


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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 25.

Craig Long

President Barack Obama stormed the White House in 2008, riding the wave of “hope” and “change” and a public that was tired of President George W. Bush and his party. His election inspired millions across the globe, particularly in Europe, that America was turning a new leaf. He even received the Nobel Prize for it. To be sure, expectations were high.

Within two years, the president had accomplished something that no other president had ever done, though several had tried: He succeeded in reforming health care insurance with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It is the most substantial social policy reform since Social Security and Medicare (thank you, FDR). It was highly controversial at the time and continues to be.

It gave him the appearance of being a strong leader and, depending on who you talked to, made him either a savior or the anti-Christ. However, he was and still is no stronger than your average freshman legislator, and he has beaten a hasty retreat from any sort of confrontation with the opposition party. The newly reinvigorated Republican Party, riding a wave of their own (the tea party), has seemingly controlled the direction of the country since the mid-term elections of 2010, despite holding only marginal control in the House and being in the minority in the Senate.

When you look back on what has transpired, it is hard to see how we missed it. President Obama, when he was elected, had served only one session in the Senate, holding no elected position beforehand. He is a skilled orator, for sure: his speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004 was something special; even though I considered myself a staunch Republican at the time, I was impressed.

While there is no constitutional requirement for holding the office of the presidency other than being a natural-born citizen aged 35, there is a reason we have historically looked for those with extensive prior experience in government. The years of negotiations, fights and the daily grind of writing law have toughened them. Experienced leaders know how to stand their ground, and when and where to make concessions in negotiations. They learn this at lower levels of government, where the legislation (or their participation in it) is not as vital. However, President Obama is having to learn at the highest level possible. It would be like if I had never played chess and was forced to learn against World Champion Viswanathan Anand.

The first evidence of President Obama’s inability to lead and negotiate on the level required of the president actually came during his crowning achievement, the health care insurance reform. He was in favor of a public option for health insurance, to ensure that everyone had equal access to it, regardless of that person’s economic standing. However, despite having a super majority in the Senate and control of the House, he was unable to get a bill passed with that clause. In passing it without the public option, he lost one of the main ways to ensure the population is insured, and as a result, his law is missing the common denominator that underlies nearly every top-ranked health care system in the world.

In the most recent manufactured crisis to face the country, he failed as well. The recent negotiations on the proposal to raise the debt ceiling represent a colossal loss by the Obama administration over something that has historically been something of little consequence. He let the Republicans bring the fight to his doorstep and lost horribly. When the opposing lead, John Boenher, emerges from negotiations saying that he got “98 percent of what he wanted,” it is an unequivocal defeat. If those negotiations were a poker game, Obama lost his house, car and wife, and walked to the homeless shelter shirtless.

Granted, letting the country default on the debt would be catastrophic. However, like all negotiations, it was bound to go down to the wire. Unfortunately, Obama didn’t just blink — he covered his eyes and cowered in the corner. The damage done by defaulting temporarily (after default, there is no way that a more balanced plan wouldn’t be approved within a few short days), could be drastically less than the damage done by improperly cutting programs without even attempting to raise revenue. Beyond that, this was an absolutely constructed problem, designed to throw the government into chaos (hint: it succeeded), as the government has raised the debt ceiling 74 times since 1962 without much fanfare. He did not need to back down; he needed to fight, and he failed to do so.

Even if you take that the country defaulting is too important to play the political game with (apparently not the position of the GOP), he’s retreated from even modest resistance this past week. Last week, he proposed that the EPA impose more restrictive regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. This week he retracted that proposal, simply because of a little modest opposition and fears this could harm the economy. While economic policy ranks high on the president’s to-do list, he didn’t even attempt to negotiate a middle ground, he simply retreated to the standard that Bush (obviously, our most eco-conscious president) had set.

Again, this is all coming from the man whom we elected to lead the country. However, he has been much more of a follower than a leader. You would not expect a freshman legislator to hold his own in negotiations against the experienced leadership. However, it is imperative for the system to work that the president holds his own. But he has failed us. Perhaps, at some point in the future, he would be the right man for the job. He would be able to stand for the truly important parts of his own proposals, and would refuse to be bullied by those in Congress. But he didn’t give himself enough time to learn, and now politics is suffering as a result.