Will the real Obama please stand up?

A mid-term summation of the influences, experiences, and missteps that have made this president.

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President Obama, golfing on Martha's Vineyard in 2009.

A mid-term summation of the influences, experiences, and missteps that have made this president.

David Horsey of Seattlepi.com wrote an interesting piece the other day, after spending time in Hawaii, about Hawaii's influence on the character and outlook of President Barack Obama.  Some of the president's former teachers and classmates told Horsey they were surprised by the success of an Obama they had known as something of a slacker.  Even his basketball skills weren't all that much, one
That set me to thinking about the many other influences and experiences that had made the man who has been our president for two years but who continues to send conflicting signals about who he is and where he wants to take us.  His recent State of the Union speech, and subsequent actions, have contributed further to uncertainty.
I bought into Obama quite early.  I endorsed in both a newspaper column and my 2007 memoirs his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.  I spoke for him at my precinct caucus and sent a check to his campaign.  I had chances to meet him during his campaign visits to Seattle but did not make use of them.  The uplifting, optimistic tone and content of his speeches were similar to those of John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and other early 1960s Democratic leaders.  I knew the man without meeting him, I thought.
Harvard Law School classmates told me he seemed destined then for big things.  He was a leader but no backslapper and stood a bit apart.  He was respected for going home to Chicago, for community service, when most of his classmates were headed to Wall Street or big-name law firms.   I read an interview in which Obama said his favorite Columbia professor as an undergraduate had been Zbigniew Brzezinski.  But Brzezinski told me Obama had never been his student and he had never met him.  (He did meet him briefly in 2008 but, after their meeting, Obama hastened to state that he did not necessarily subscribe to Brzezinski's foreign-policy views).
I liked the fact that Obama had been raised in multicultural Hawaii and had lived for a time in Indonesia, where he was enrolled in a Muslim school — which, by the way, listed his religion as "Muslim" and his citizenship as "Indonesian."  He knew something of African politics and culture because of his father.  (He also appears to have a bit of an anti-British bias because of British quashing of African dissidents during the colonial era). His mother was a liberal, save-the-world Caucasian. He was raised mainly by her Kansas parents after they got to Hawaii.  His grandfather told him stories of his World War II service.

Here, I thought, was a cosmopolitan man who had been exposed to many places and people, ranging from the Third World barefooted to Ivy League elitists to the politically primal-movers of Chicago.  I did regret that he had not really been a part of the American black experience.  But he had remedied that, in part, by marrying into an archtypical Chicago middle class black family and immersing himself in local black institutions.
Obama's nominating campaign was skillful.  The Democratic party goes by rules of proportional representation. Thus, although the favored candidate, Sen. Hillary Clinton, won the country's big electoral states, Obama ran strongly enough to get a decent share of delegates there.  He organized intensely in smaller and non-primary states, which the Clinton campaign had taken for granted, so as to sweep them one-sidedly.  The result: Clinton carried the big states but Obama won the nomination.
His 2008 campaign themes, I thought, also were skillfully framed.  The country had been alienated by the political and ideological polarizations of the 16 Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years. Obama presented hmself as post-partisan and post-ideological.  He would be a practical problem-solver.  Independent voters, outnumbering now both Democrats and Republicans, went for the message bigtime and won the election for him. 

He and his wife Michelle had made some rhetorical stumbles during the campaign (Obama faulting middle-American voters because "they cling to guns and religion" and Michelle saying she "had never before been proud of her country" prior to her husband's nomination).  But both at the time had been speaking to groups who would identify with those notions.
There were some other warning signs during his 2008 campaign.  Obama kept talking about big health-care and other expensive domestic initiatives even when mounting financial distress made such initiatives inappropriate in 2009.  Not to worry, I thought.  He did not want to shift promises in mid-campaign and would move to practical governance when elected.  His principal advisers and appointees came from a Clinton administration which was familiar with centrist governance.
But then, in 2009, Obama did shift abruptly.  He did not shift policies in light of the financial/economic crises which by then had overtaken the country.  He instead shifted from his 2008 Mr. Independent problem-solver persona to a 2009 Mr. Partisan champion of proposals which would be formulated and jammed through Congress on a one-party basis.

Congressional Republicans and ordinary voters might have been inclined to entertain such proposals had the surrounding economic climate not been so bleak and had so many federal dollars not already been allocated to stimulus and bailout programs. I had thought that, in 2009, Obama would take steps, first, to stabilize the financial system and economy and then, when recovery took hold, would press ahead with his domestic proposals.
The outcome was seen last November.   Independent voters, in particular, abandoned Democratic congressional candidates in protest against  the slowness of economic recovery, the mounting debt and deficits they associated with Obamacare, and the stimulus/bailout programs.  Republicans gained 63 U.S. House seats and six U.S. Senate seats, and several governorships and state legislatures.  That gave them comfortable control of the House and near control of the Senate, where they threaten to gain outright control in 2012, since there will be more than twice as many Democratic Senate incumbents on the ballot then as Republican.
Obama, then, appeared to shift aburptly back to his 2008 persona.  Surprising compromises were made in a year-end lameduck Congress.   Democrats and Republicans sat side by side, rather than in separate sections, at his State of the Union speech. But the speech itself, and Obama's actions since, have left doubt about the path he truly intends to take in the remainder of 2011.
Obama appointed last year a deficit-reduction commission, with ground rules that its overall proposals would be considered in one up-or-down congressional vote if a weighted majority of commission members voted for those proposals. But he then apponted members whom he had to know could never arrive at a weighted majority.  Thus the country's No. 1 financial/economic problem — the tremendous overhang of public debt and of rising annual federal deficits — remains to be dealt with piecemeal.

Obama's State of the Union text pledged to address the problem but with a general "You go first!" message to Republicans. He offered an olive branch to Republicans by offering to reopen some aspects of his health plan and to add tort-reform provisions which they had sought.  He also proposed tax reform that would lower rates and eliminate loopholes, but without getting into the politically perilous details.
After having gotten crosswise with business during his first two years, Obama began 2011 by appointing as his new chief of staff former Clinton Commerce Secretary, banker, and Chicago pol Bill Daley.  He has spent much of January and February genuflecting to business audiences.  The main theme of his State of the Union focused on American economic renewal, but not by the usual macropolicy measures.  Instead, he floated what used to be called Industrial Policy ideas to shift away from fossil fuels toward a green economy and to enhance, in particular, American kids' math and science skills.

Industrial policy, a term in particular vogue in the 1970s and 1980s, is based on tax breaks, federal expenditures, antitrust waivers, export subsidies, regulatory relief, and other measures directed toward favored economic sectors and industries.  Industrial policy is often characterized as "picking winners and losers."  It has been favored in the past by big goods-producing industries especially threatened by foreign competition.  The new Obama proposals would benefit such companies but, also, help presently uncompetitive alternative-energy companies unable to rise on their own.

In his speech, Obama also promised to punish big oil.  He did not address the contradiction between subsidizing long term new-energy initiatives and the immediate imperative to become independent of Middle Eastern oil through greater use of exisitng U.S. old-energy sources.
Since his State of the Union, of course, upheaval in Egypt, uncertainties elsewhere in the Middle East, and continuing problems in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan have forced their way to the top of the national agneda.  Congress has been in recess much of the time since the State of the Union.
Obama no doubt would like to stick to his middle-of-road, 2008 path over these next two years.  Republican numbers in the Congress would appear to make it difficult to do otherwise.  However, Republican congressional leaders feel pressure from Tea Partiers to act in a big way, and right now, to cut federal spending.   This is driving them toward an early showdown with the White House on lifting of the federal debt limit.   Republicans also will continue their efforts to defund major provisions of Obamacare while courts consider whether it should or should not be repealed partly or in its entirety.  Now the Republicans are debating whether they want to press anti-abortion legislation and thus reignite a divisive social issue.  On some of these matters Obama will feel compelled to oppose them and, if necessary, cast his presidential veto.
After last November's elections, only a handful of Blue Dog, moderate Democrats remain in the House.  The majority of the House Democratic Caucus is liberal. There are fewer moderates, too, among congressional Republicans.  House Speaker John Boehner and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell have been spending much of their time trying to convince true believers that moderation and compromise are better approaches right now than harsh confrontation.
All these factors leave me concerned about some aspects of Obama's policies and of Obama's persona that could cause him near-term problems.
If you polled respected macroeconomists about the measures needed now to fully restore American financial and economic health, they likely would respond something like this:
•Cut short-term deficits and address long-term debt, beginning in the latter case with aggressive reform of Medicare and Social Security, while at the same time keeping monetary policy expansive to facilitate growth.
•Stimulate global growth and fight protectionism by trying to jump start the stalled Doha Round of multilateral liberalization while completing now-pending bilateral trade deals with Korea, Colombia, and Panama. Also, stop talking about "opening foreign markets to U.S. exports," a mercantilist phrase; instead, repeat JFK's theme that "a rising tide lifts all boats."
•Scrub the personal and corporate tax codes of the many subsidies and preferences that cut a hole in the federal revenue base and distort economic activity; relatedly, cut corporate and personal tax rates to stimulate overall growth.
•Enact new financial-regulation legislation to replace the inadequate legislation passed in 2010 and which did nothing to reduce fundamental systemic risk.
•Make new investments in basic research but avoid gimmicky initiatives to artificially promote growth in sectors that cannot make it without subsidies.
•Make public investments only in cost-effective infrastructure programs that have proved their worth; do not allocate big money to such things as "high-speed" rail in parts of the country where its costs would far exceed its benefits.
If you match that list against Obama's list, they only partially match.  Does he recognize this?  Does his present business  offensive, emphasizing micro-programs, really signal what he intends to do?  Or is it just words and will he in time take the advice of his Council of Economic Advisors, Treasury Secretary, and others that wise macropolicy trumps the targeted, little stuff every time? 
My own instinct is that Republicans, coming off their November victories, will overreach just as badly in 2011-12 as Obama did in 2009-10. If Obama maintains a posture of reasonableness, while fending off partisan GOP initiatives, he will gain in popularity and strengthen his party for 2012.  He also will stand a better chance of advancing a big agenda by this course, rather than taking the Republican bait and trading partisan blows.
Now comes the awkward question:  What is at Obama's core?  Who is he, really? 
I sum him up this way: the detachment of the onetime outsider, the politically correct orientations of his Ivy League student generation, and the sometimes hard-nosed instincts learned in Chicago politics.

His background is appealing. He gives a good speech. He clearly is intelligent. He has shown just below the surface some of the ruthlessness that a leader must have. (His White House staff turnover in two years is the most in any modern presidency.)

Yet his detachment seems to be keeping him from connecting with the American people as he might. He reads his scripts and teleprompter well. But few of the words seem to come from his gut and heart. That is not to say that they are insincere.  But I am still waiting for that moment when, on a big issue, he steps up with genuine emotion and force.

The reaction then would be:  Yes, that is Obama. He believes in what he says; he is brave and he is right.

He has not gotten there yet.  Let us hope that he will.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.