Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Obama Twenty

As the first year of Barack Obama's presidency rapidly draws to a close, many on the left are disappointed with his emphasis on consensus building. There is a strong, unspoken sense that - after nearly three decades of life under a prevailing conservative dogma due to the ascent of Ronald Reagan in 1980 - liberals should be using their newfound power to inflict retributive suffering on the right-wing to the greatest extent possible. Exacerbating this sentiment is the fear that an excessive willingness to work with conservatives and centrists in Congress will lead to the watering down of those achievements Obama is able to push through - a concern which ignores the simple fact that parliamentary give-and-take has been a key factor in all substantive legislative progress since the founding of our republic.

This isn't to say that Obama shouldn't be judged on what he has or has not been able to achieve. Quite to the contrary, the tools that Obama had for the purpose of creating real change were among the most potent given to any liberal president in more than a generation - he had been elected by the largest popular vote margin of any Democrat since 1964, had picked up the electoral votes of states that had not gone to his party since that same election, would work with a Congress in which both houses were dominated by his own political party, and most important of all, would have the reins of government at a time when the American people were most avidly clamoring for change. Although being the inheritor of two unsuccessful wars and the most severe economic downturn in two-thirds of a century carried with it obvious burdens, history had showed that it also offered Obama unique opportunities. As Rahm Emanuel, the president's new Chief of Staff, astutely observed (in a statement that I suspect historians will use to encapsulate the first year of Obama's tenure), "You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before."

That said, the presence of great political advantages did not mean that Obama had a blank check. The electoral mandate he won in 2008 was as much a reflection of voter dissatisfaction with George W. Bush, John McCain, and Sarah Palin as it was a referendum of support for the policies of Barack Obama; the Democrats who would control Congress from 2009-2010 were an ideologically divided and historically undisciplined bunch, something symbolized perfectly by the fact that the two independent Senators who had to be brought into the Democratic caucus to give them a filibuster-proof majority were the right-of-center Joe Lieberman and the quasi-socialistic Bernard Sanders; and the very crisis that would initially cause so many to rally behind Obama would inevitably, with the passage of time, begin to be blamed on him, as Republicans would be all too eager to exploit the voting public's short term memory to transform the legacy of George W. Bush into Barack Obama's albatross. Capping all of this off was the shameful reality that, despite all of our progress on racial matters, there would remain a strong undercurrent of bigotry against African-Americans that would cause millions of Americans to oppose President Obama no matter what he proposed, and to, as right-wing demagogue Rush Limbaugh so succinctly put it (with more candor than most of his cohorts are willing to display), "hope he fails".

When the confluence of all these elements is taken into consideration, what needs to be asked is, what does the record of our new president have to show for it? To answer that question, I have composed a list of what I believe to be the major achievements of the first year of the Obama administration. Conveniently, they add up to the nice round number of twenty (hence the name of this article):

January 22, 2009:
Obama signs a series of executive orders to gradually close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, formally banning torture as an interrogation method by requiring that the Army abide strictly by the regulations laid out in its field manual, and establishing an interagency task force to determine detention policies and procedures on an individual case-by-case basis.

January 29, 2009:
Obama signs into his law, as the very first bill to which he affixed his presidential pen, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This legislation nullifies a Supreme Court ruling from the previous year which declared that plaintiffs in gender-based wage discrimination cases had to file a claim within 180 days of their company's decision to pay them less than a fellow employee doing the same work. The new bill makes it so that the claim to pay discrimination (and thus the 180-day deadline) resents with each new discriminatory paycheck.

February 4, 2009:
Obama signs the Children’s Health Insurance Reauthorization Act, which adds $32.8 billion to expand health care coverage to more than four million children via SCHIP (State Children's Health Insurance Program).

February 17, 2009:
Obama pioneers, pushes through, and signs the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (better known simply as the "stimulus package"). This complex bill includes increases in social welfare spending, a wide array of infrastructure programs, subsidies to education and health care, tax cuts, and a host of other measures geared toward the purpose of getting America out of the economic recession that began in December 2007 and was greatly worsened by the crisis of September 2008. Although met with severe skepticism by critics on the left and right, this legislation has already shown signs of achieving its primary goal - preventing the recession from becoming a full-fledged Great Depression, ending the recession itself, and putting us on the road to economic recovery.

February 27, 2009:
Obama delivers key speech on Iraq War policy, announcing a withdrawal of all combat troops by August 2010, with a contingent of up to 50,000 servicemen and women to continue training, advisory, and counterterrorism operations until up to December 2011.

March 30, 2009:
Obama signs the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, which reverses the pernicious environmental legacy of the Bush administration by protecting two million acres of wilderness in nine states as well as a thousand miles of rivers, establishes new national trails and parks, and provides legal status to the National Landscape Conservation System, which will protect many of America's most naturally valuable landscapes.

April 12, 2009:
Obama successfully resolves the Somali hostage crisis - a situation in which pirates from the East African nation of Somalia hijacked the Maersk Alabama and held its captain hostage for several days - by having US Navy kill all but one of the pirates while rescuing the imprisoned captain unharmed.

May 20, 2009:
Obama signs the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, which takes aggressive measures to strengthen fraud laws pertaining to financial institutions, mortgage fraud, and securities or commodities fraud. It not only lends protections to the millions of working class Americans who had been made vulnerable by the deregulations of the Reagan Era, but also lays the foundations for preventing a repetition of the circumstances that caused the financial panic of September 2008.

May 20, 2009:
Obama signs the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009 which excludes home mortgage debt from the current maximum debt limitations, allows bankruptcy judges to alter mortgage loans owed by individuals participating in Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings, expands the HOPE for Homeowners program to assist those in danger of being turned out of their houses, and provide legal safeguards for mortgage service companies to work with homeowners facing foreclosure on affordable mortgage terms, among other similarly oriented measures.

May 22, 2009:
Obama signs the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act of 2009, which limits when credit card rates can be increased on existing balances, allows people facing increased rates to reduce their annual percentage rates if they've punctually paid their bills for the previous six months, guarantee at least 45 days advance notice of any significant changes in credit card terms, granting a deadline of 21 days for consumers to pay their credit card bills, and prohibiting profiteering trickery such as universal default and double-cycle billing.

June 4, 2009:
Obama delivers landmark speech in Cairo, Egypt, that helps repair America's relationship with Muslim countries alienated during the Bush Administration through a frank admission of wrongs done by our country to those lands (such as our role in the deposing of Mossadeq in Iran) and an avowed desire to engage in more fruitful diplomatic talks with Middle Eastern peoples, while simultaneously demanding that Muslim nations recognize Israel's right to exist and denounce Holocaust denialism.

August 6, 2009:
Obama signs the Car Allowance Rebate System (better known as the Cash For Clunkers Act) that provides economic incentives for consumers to purchase fuel efficient vehicles when trading in their less fuel efficient cars, as well as stimulate the economy through increased automobile sales.

October 22, 2009:
Obama signs the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act, which guarantees that veterans receive funding sufficient to their needs in a predictable and timely fashion, and is combined with a tax incentive that helps veterans take advantage of homebuying opportunities.

October 28, 2009:
Obama signs the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expands the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include offenses motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. It is the first federal law to extend protection to the transgendered.

October 30, 2009:
Obama signs the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act, which assists low-income individuals living with AIDS to afford adequate treatment for their disease.

November 6, 2009:
Obama signs the Worker, Homeownership, and Business Assistance Act of 2009, which extends unemployment benefits and the homebuyer tax credit.

Additional Accomplishments:
There are also achievements that, though not yet capable of being etched down with specific dates and titles, are nevertheless well on the way to being realized due to Obama's efforts from his first year in office. These include:
- A health care reform bill that will make it illegal for insurance companies to drop patients who become sick, end the practice of denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, ban the charging of excessive premiums based on gender and health status and age, end annual or lifetime caps on benefits, help cut skyrocketing health care costs and thus reduce on our crippling deficit, and provide affordable insurance to more than thirty million Americans who currently lack it over the next ten years.
- Fighting rising unemployment through a reallocation of surplus TARP money toward job creation initiatives.
- Work to halt the proliferation of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction.
- Pushing through climate change measures such as those agreed upon during last month's Copenhagen summit.

Indeed, my only significant criticism of President Obama's first year was his decision, on December 1, 2009, to send 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan. While I agree that America must be proactive in stopping Islamofascism, I believe our emphasis should rest on capturing Osama bin Laden and bringing him to justice. Not only would this serve a major strategic goal (of significantly damaging al Qaeda's organizational infrastructure by cutting off their head), but it will improve American morale considerably, as it will help close the wound opened by bin Laden's act of evil on September 11, 2001. By focusing on a war in Afghanistan that lacks any coherent sense of purpose or set of attainable goals, we risk wasting precious manpower and material resources on what policymakers need to recognize is a peripheral objective.

That issue aside, though, I feel that Obama's first year in office has far more to its credit than it does its detriment. Even as liberals gripe and moan about Obama's desire to forge consensus, I think they would be wise to remember the words uttered by our last productive liberal president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, on the day after he famously announced that he would not seek a second full term in 1968:

"Sometimes I have been called a seeker of 'consensus' - more often in criticism than in praise. And I have never denied it. Because to heal and to build in support of something worthy is, I believe, a noble task."

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