It’s good to be declarative when talking about presidents. They should own things. Think ‘Bush’s War’ for Iraq. And, now, it seems ‘Obama’s War’ for Afghanistan.

So, I’m declarative here: Obama’s failure.

I’ve wanted to write this for a long time. It really built over 2010. As my feelings grew stronger, I felt trapped by circumstances. For the first half of the year, I was seeking the Democratic nomination for Congress. It’s probably not the keenest strategy to air your grievances against the leader of the very party whose nomination you are seeking. (Also, the airing of grievances should be restricted to Festivus anyway). In the second half of the year, after winning the nomination, I felt paralyzed by cynicism. If I called out the president, it would just be viewed cynically as another Democratic candidate who was trying to distance himself from an unpopular president. It would perceived as just another politician willing to say anything, and throw anyone under the bus just to get elected. As an aside, I also refrained from any Republican-bashing whatsoever because outside of its unproductive nature, I realized it would be dismissed as standard politics. (This strategy was not as effective as I hoped.)

So I pretty much meant kept my mouth shut in public on the subject of the president. Tonight, the president delivers his third state of the union. I didn’t want him to address the nation until I weighed in. I can only imagine the frustration of his speechwriters once they read this and have to do a massive re-write with only hours to go. Such is life. 😛

I am not happy with President Barack Obama. Some would say that I am just being cynical. But it’s the opposite. It’s the president that has revealed himself to be the most cynical of all.

In 2006 & 2007, Barack Obama campaigned across America speaking about change. Not just any change. Not changing a few policies. Like changing the healthcare system, changing the vacancy sign at Gitmo, or changing DADT . No, he talked about transformational change. Washington was a corrupt, fatally flawed place, that had ceased to function for the American people. If the goal of Washington was to advance the cause of the American experiment, it had failed. It was broken. Barack Obama had come along to tell us…no, to promise us, that he was coming to Washington to destroy it.

There’s a deep sense of hopelessness and cynicism attached to politics. Most of all amongst the youngest of voters. I believe it boils down to a sense that it doesn’t matter which candidate wins, nothing changes but the window dressing. In a campaign of historic proportions, Obama flipped the script. He galvanized young and old. Here, he promised, was your chance to be heard. I’m sick of all this too. The posturing. The petty bickering. The flitting away at the margins, while the glaring disasters are in plain sight. I hear you! Now is not the time to be small, it’s time to go big! Instead of being sick of everything, let’s change the system, he whispered to us.

So we elected him. And, look, I’m actually one of the people who think almost any decent Democratic candidate should have won that election. The conditions near-perfect (Bush fatigue, supreme economic malaise-turned-crisis, a changed McCain, and everything ‘Sarah Palin’) for a McCain defeat. But, still: record dollars raised, largest grassroots effort in American history, electoral landslide! Change had come to America! Game on! Let’s go change Washington! Can’t Wait!

It’s been two years. I’m still waiting.

That’s not to say that a lot hasn’t been accomplished. Far from it. The president has presided over one of the most ambitious legislative agendas in decades. See this site for the laundry list of things, passed and signed.. As checklists go, he’s been busy.

But Washington today looks a whole lot like it did 5 years ago. The huge scary problems that were looming over us 3 years ago, are still there. The president promised transformational change, and then once he got there, he went hard at work on transactional change.

Am I being too harsh? Is it not realistic to expect big, systemic change? To expect course-altering? Maybe, but I was just expecting what was promised.

In the end, I’m a harsh realist. So I as I watched the campaign unfold, I was never sure that Obama would be able to do the things he promised. But I believed that he was truly angered by these things and that he would at least try.

I do not believe that Barack Obama ever tried to change Washington. This is Obama’s ultimate failure.
Maybe he tried to do it by asking nicely. He went behind the scenes and extended olive branches. Asked for help in tackling the big problems and reforming the system. In fact, let’s just assume that he did this and was (not) shockingly, rebuffed by all those with a stake in the status quo and that sought political advantage.

Then what?

He used every old trick in the book to get things done. Nothing changed except the transactions. He got some impressively difficult legislation passed. To do so, he signed bills that had massive pork (when he promised to not do this). He OK’ed backroom deals (when he campaigned for radical transparency) to horsetrade for votes. He signed a ~$4 trillion tax cut extension when he said that he wanted to truly take on the debt. Yeah, he did get a lot done. But at what cost? The cost was preserving the system, keeping our course (towards the iceberg), and maintaining the destructive status quo of DC.

What did I want him to do? I wanted him to fight. I expected him to take a baseball bat to DC if it wouldn’t change easy. I expected him to expose the corruption, hypocrisy, and ideologues who stood in the way of transformational change. Hold press conferences where you call individual people out. Highlight the dollars flowing between certain PAC’s and their supplicants. Explain how it all actually impacts the American people. Re-engage that army  of volunteers to go to work at the grassroots level to spread the word about what was really happening. It would work because he was right. Because he took the moral high ground.

Of course this would have consequences. Instead of passing all that legislation, Congress would grind to a standstill. No healthcare reform, DADT, etc, etc, etc, etc. Instead there’s war in DC. He’s taking a bat to Washington. I’m OK with that. Not because I’m insensitive to the suffering of the people who have benefited from the incremental progress of the new laws. Not because I’m a purist who believes that Perfect is the enemy of Good. But because we are a nation at a pivotal moment, at a time of crisis, and transactional leadership won’t cut it. We need transformational leadership, and Obama was thrilled during the campaign to be the vessel in which we believed it could be enacted through.

Why am I so hung up on this? Why am I so repulsed? Because the big problems aren’t close to being addressed:

– $14 trillion in current debt; record deficits; $50 trillion more coming down the pike
– $3 billion spent lobbying and more on its way each day
– A financial system that is still deeply vulnerable but papered over due to the Fed’s printing press
– A ~17% real unemployment rate that has showed substantial evidence of being the ‘new normal’
– A manufacturing sector on its last legs due to failed US trade, tax, and regulatory policies
– Control of our debt by nations who appear to be becoming increasingly aggressive towards us
– The list. Goes. On. And. On. And. On…

As long as the status quo remains, we are not capable of taking on these challenges. That was his campaign narrative . It was right then. It’s right now. What’s changed are the president’s priorities. He chose getting stuff done vs getting stuff right. He chose progress today vs a real foundation for tomorrow.

That’s President Barack Obama’s failure. He failed to do what he told us he would. Worst of all, he didn’t even fight to.

I suspect this post will infuriate many. It will bring out the instinctive need to defend ‘their guy.’ I understand your reaction. Politics is horrifically adversarial and combative. It’s worse than sports. When a Steelers fan makes fun of the Bengals (even if they’re right), I pipe up. When a Patriots fan rips on the Jets (even if they’re right), I rush to concoct a tortured defense. But politics, the debate over the direction of the future of our country, should not be so tortured. I believe, to my very core, that we should not defend people or parties. We should defend principles and ideas. Only principles and ideas. Because the people and the parties sell out. They change. They compromise. They sell out. Our values, our principles, our ideals and ideas, these are the things that are true. Hold them above all else.

For the first time in a very long time, I sat down to write without fear of if it would be used against me. I didn’t worry that it would cost me votes or whether it would be popular. This is what I feel. I say it with a clear heart and no sinister purpose. I know my values and I know what I would like to see done. And so I write.

3 Responses

  1. Surya – Yes your post is harsh, and IMHO maybe too harsh on the individual. While I'm not privy to what goes on in Washington, I'm also not stupid and am old enough to be less naive and perhaps as hopeful or optimistic as you or Obama. I too was excited and happy to see someone stand up for what is right and promise to fight the establishment and corruption. Obama was the new Kennedy. The similarity should not be quickly forgotten. What happened to JFK? He was silenced by someone – even today we are not so sure it was a single crazy person that was behind the assassination. I'm not going to get into conspiracy theories here, but it does make you wonder when you you see the reaction to Richard Falk's recent comments questioning 9-11:

    U.S. academic Richard Falk wrote in a blog this month that there had been an "apparent cover-up" by U.S. authorities over the September 11, 2001 attacks, in which hijackers flew airliners into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington, killing more than 3,000 people.

    "In my view, Mr. Falk's latest commentary is so noxious that it should finally be plain to all that he should no longer continue in his position on behalf of the U.N.," Rice said in a statement.

    Really? There is no question that there was some form of cover-up. How else do you explain the suppression of video evidence from the Pentagon when there were numerous security cameras recording the area?

    I could go on, but my point is that by merely questioning the "powers that be" – you are condemned as a terrorist, or a conspiracy nut. It smacks of McCarthyism all over again. If you have nothing to hide, you are not afraid of those who question you.

    So why the 360 degree turnaround by Obama? Simple. He DID want to change things. He DID believe he could. He DID think that "YES WE CAN."

    Unfortunately, once moving into the White House, he becomes privy to the real situation – where he quickly realizes that if any change is to be accomplished – no matter how small – he will have to play the game that is controlled by people much more powerful than his office. The alternative is to be silenced – and don't kid yourself that it would not happen.

    I think Obama is doing what he can in an extremely difficult situation. To fight and win alone (which he is) is an impossible task and he now knows that, and as long as the people keep buying into the stories they keep being fed, change will never really happen. History has proven that over and over.

    Once an optimist like you my friend, call me now a cynic.

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