Let’s Stop Blaming Obama: The Case for Taking Collective Responsibility

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Matt Bai’s recent New York Times article about the modern presidency portrays an executive with severely limited abilities to shape the world and America’s destiny. It argues that globalization has made it nearly impossible to effectively manage the economy and national security. As Bai says, “we live in an integrated world where American jobs rely on the economic policies of governments in Asia and Latin America, while our security is subject to the whims of a cleric living in a cave.”

Bai offers some compelling statistics. According to economist Robert J. Shapiro the percentage of the world’s collective GDP that is traded across borders is now nearly 30%, up from 18% in 1990; and according to historian David M. Kennedy, roughly 25% of America’s GDP consists of foreign trade, compared to 10% throughout most of the 20th century.

This has ushered in an “age of regression,” as Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis puts it— an era in which America was supposed to be the sole unchallenged superpower in all areas but ironically can in reality hope at best to create “a stable balance of power,” to quote Bai. The author goes on to point out that in a time when a crisis in Greece can cause panic on Wall Street it makes Obama’s recent economic proposals, particularly his push for overhauling America’s infrastructure, seem “almost tangential,” since it feels as though there is little he can do to transform the economy and by extension his political fortunes in the midterm elections.

Though I consider Bai’s piece a fine read and his ideas compelling, I think that his argument falls into the same trap that has engulfed almost all commentaries on Obama’s presidency. Most pundits seem to say in essence that Obama, and furthermore the government as a whole, can’t get anything done (unless you’re a Wall Street Journal or FOX News reporter bent on portraying the President as an evil dictator). Thomas Friedman, for example, recently wrote an editorial pushing for the rise of a serious third party that will reshape the political spectrum in reaction to the stultified state of Washington. Such commentary typically calls attention to globalization and congressional gridlock. And it often points to partisan bickering and Obama’s failure to communicate with Main Street.

All this is true to an extent. But let’s not forget that Obama has accomplished more than any president since at least LBJ, if not FDR. From health care reform and financial reform to Race to the Top and a record investment in research and development in science and medicine (see Jonathan Alter’s book called The Promise), not to mention $116 billion worth of tax cuts for 95% of Americans, he has achieved a tremendous amount. Let’s also bear in mind that his bold policies, such as rescuing the auto/banking industries and the stimulus, saved millions of jobs and prevented a depression. And by the way, this depression almost certainly would have made the 30’s look like a walk in the park: judging by the impact of Lehman’s collapse one can only shudder to think what things would have looked like if all the major financial firms and auto companies had failed.

As such, if avoiding a depression were all Obama had accomplished I would argue that his presidency was effective if not successful. But when we consider that he not only resoundingly erased such a possibility but further initiated countless other legislative policies we must give him credit and support.

It is true that, as Bai claims, Obama may have less control because of the globalized world we live in. But, as far as national security goes, the President has maintained the apparatus of unprecedented and virtually unlimited power that his predecessor forged. Only Obama has apparently not abused those powers, as he has outlawed torture and prefers trying terror suspects in civil courts over military tribunals. By the same token he has judiciously upped the ante by exponentially increasing drone strikes and targeted assassinations through Special Forces.

And in terms of the economy, there is no doubt that if Obama were working with a cooperative Congress he would be able to develop policies that would reduce unemployment with more stimulus and an ambitious infrastructure project, the latter of which we sorely need, regardless of the state of our economy (I urge you to watch the History Channel’s ominous show called “The Crumbling of America” for full details).

The real problem for the White House as I see it is not Obama or globalization. It is simply the state of mass unemployment. The devastated economy he inherited essentially doomed the public relations aspect of his presidency from the start. In other words, it would have taken a perfect strategy for his administration to avoid the almost ineluctable “can’t connect with mainstream Americans” image that has hampered his ability to bring about the change he campaigned on and has largely delivered. Perhaps this explains why his approval ratings are down in spite of all that he has done. People forget that it was Hoover who faced an identical scenario to Obama’s, not FDR. If the latter had assumed office in 1928 instead of 1932, it is fair to presume that FDR’s legacy and America as a whole would be utterly different. That’s why it is unfair to compare Obama to FDR. I think it’s more helpful to contrast Hoover’s failure to avoid a depression with Obama’s extraordinary efforts to prevent one.

But at the end of the day, the political crisis we face is not Obama’s fault. It’s our fault. That lady may have notoriously told the President that she’s “exhausted” defending him, but it’s really the American people who got us into the dire predicament, and Obama has started to salvage the situation. After repeatedly electing politicians with failed conservative policies we finally voted for a president who can clean up the epic mess we created. But we decided he has to fix everything in just two years. Well, just as it took ten years to build the Twin Towers and ten seconds for the structures to collapse, it is safe to say that it will take longer to repair the damage done by the Bush administration than the time we have seemingly allotted Obama.

As such, it appears that America will punish the President for taking risks that have mostly proved prudent and will reward the Republicans for their shameless obstructionism and cynical lies about Obama’s “failed stimulus,” which, if it failed at all, failed in that it wasn’t large enough, as Paul Krugman has argued. If we restore the Republicans to power all the old discredited gubernatorial practices will return in an even more extreme form, and we’ll have nobody to blame but ourselves. The modern President may have limited powers, as Bai argues, but the Founding Fathers never intended for the President to have more authority than he has (especially in the post-Bush era). The point of democracy is that the people decide who’s in and who’s out. And the system can work if we punish obstructionism and support legislative progress.
(For more articles check out my blog: http://scholarlywritingreviewed.com/)

Stimulus saved jobs: http://factcheck.org/2010/09/did-the-stimulus-create-jobs/
Tax Cuts: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/19/us/politics/19taxes.html

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A recent graduate of NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, I consider myself a student of Melville and Shakespeare. Particularly, my fascination with Moby Dick has sparked a broader interest in many fields such as politics, history, science, economics, etc, since that novel deals with disparate disciplines and issues in an encyclopedic, yet accessible manner.

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