Friday, March 19, 2010

Obama's Legacy: The First Year

I still disagree with Barack Obama's decision to spend the first year of his presidency focused on passing health care reform. Although I do not dispute that this is an issue of critical importance, I still believe that he should have followed in the example of Franklin Roosevelt, who spent his first year in office fighting unemployment (see the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Civil Works Administration, the Public Works Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority), providing relief to those most afflicted by the Depression (see the Federal Emergency Relief Act and the Home Owners Loan Corporation), protecting labor rights (see the National Recovery Administration), and reforming our banking system and Wall Street (see the Emergency Banking Relief Act, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Securities and Exchange Commission).

Obama's defenders will frequently respond to this criticism by arguing that the America of 2009-2010 is very different from that of 1933-1934. While this is no doubt true, the nation that Obama took over was in many essential respects very similar to that inherited by Franklin Roosevelt:
- Both became president during a time of unprecedented economic calamity;
- Both were liberals who inherited power after a long period of time in which conservative ideas dominated American political life (for Roosevelt, since the election of Warren Harding in 1920; for Obama, since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980);
- Both had dominant majorities in both houses of Congress to assist them in implementing their will who, despite their often disparate ideological convictions, were nonetheless capable of being molded into a cohesive force given the right circumstances and pressures;
- Both had been elected by decisive majorities after the opposing party's administration was widely perceived to have been a dismal failure (Herbert Hoover in Franklin Roosevelt's case, and George W. Bush - through a proxy, John McCain - in Barack Obama's case).

By dedicating the first year of his presidency to alleviating the hardships of the Great Depression and implementing great reforms to both prevent its reoccurrence and improve the quality of life for the American working class, Franklin Roosevelt acquired the most precious resource that can be possessed by any president - popularity. This isn't to say that there weren't many who fiercely opposed Roosevelt's measures; then, as now, there were many vociferous right-wing organizations that cropped out of nowhere (often with the covert backing of big businesses and other wealthy Americans) to denounce Roosevelt as a socialist, a dictator, a subverter of the Constitution, etc. Fortunately for America, Roosevelt had the insight to realize that their goal was to intimidate him away from being as bold and sweeping in his agenda as our America needed, and to dismiss their bluster and hyperbole accordingly. He understood that, despite the conventional wisdom propounded by so many of the pundits of his time, solving America's problems was the best way to become popular; that AFTER you were popular, you could then pass other significant social reforms unrelated to the immediate economic crisis at hand; that with your popularity you could use your brand to make your party the dominant vehicle in American political life, with your ideology serving as the fuel to keep that vehicle running; and that by doing these two things you would not only make American life better in the immediate sense, but create a long-term structure for the continuation of social reform, as well as for the perpetuation of your personal legacy and your party's reign in power.

These are lessons from history that, sadly, it appears Obama never learned. Although he entered the White House with a vision comparable in ideal and scope to that of Franklin Roosevelt, he allowed it to be tempered by the acrimony with which it was initially greeted by the big business community, grassroots right-wing protests, and congressional moderates; while Roosevelt, having these same forces arrayed against him, responded with increasing boldness, Obama became timid and conciliatory. As a result, the economic legislation that he has managed to enact has consisted mostly of half-measures, which has prevented our situation from worsening without making it significantly better, and which has failed to fundamentally reform any significant aspect of our socio-economic infrastructure.

Then Obama switched gears and began to focus on health care reform. Here, too, he made concessions to his opponents, although unlike with his economic program, the evidence here suggests that most of these were necessary. The fight toward passage has been brutal since, unlike Roosevelt, Obama did not have the reservoir of popularity needed to get his legislation through Congress smoothly and quickly. Obama's approval rating has fallen considerably, as has that of the overall Democratic party; his weakness in countering the claims of his enemies on the contents of this bill has caused a majority of Americans to have a distorted view of its contents; and even though Republicans continue to remain unpopular as an organization, they have benefited from a string of victories in various gubernatorial and congressional contests, thanks in no small part to the dissatisfaction felt by the American people toward Obama's performance in office.

Yet it looks like the bill IS going to be passed, and more importantly, it will be a bill that forever changes the lives of every American man, woman, and child. As succinctly summarized by

The historic legislation, affecting virtually every American and more than a year in the making, would extend coverage to an estimated 32 million Americans who lack it, forbid insurers to deny coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions and cut federal deficits by an estimated $138 billion over a decade...

For the first time, most Americans would be required to purchase insurance, and they would face penalties if they refused. Billions of dollars would be set aside for subsidies to help families at incomes of up to $88,000 a year afford the cost. And the legislation also provides for an expansion of Medicaid that would give government-paid health care to millions of the poor.

Does this solve all of our health care problems? No - but few, if any, single pieces of legislation have ever completely redressed the wrongs that prompted their existence. Yet as a result of it, President Barack Obama will be directly responsible for having a great and beneficial impact on the lives of the entire nation due to his health care reform policies. No legislative achievement in the field of health care, with the sole exception of Lyndon Johnson's Medicaid and Medicare programs, will have ever come close to this. That is why I can safely say the following:

When the two impending health care bills are signed into law, Barack Obama will automatically earn his place in history as one of America's great progressive presidents.

He still has a lot of work ahead of him.

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