Unwilling Reformers: President Obama Needs to Take Back Control of His Message

When Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, spoke at the Athenaeum two weeks ago, he said something surprising: his greatest fear for America has less to do with any of the normal trouble spots—finance or healthcare or national security or immigration—than with the utter paralysis of our political system. That is the arena that makes him think that our future might be cloudier than one hopes. More interesting still: Zakaria’s point, well expressed as it was, is by now not unique. One year after the financial crash which exposed the glaring shortcomings of government and the question has jumped to the front and center: how much has actually improved?

The answers are depressing on most fronts. Things are, even if not as bad, not much better than before. The political process is still pork-laden, the sides are still frozen and uncompromising (unless you count Olympia Snowe), and no serious, effective reform seems likely to come out of Washington, D.C. by December. The Democrats will likely get a healthcare bill through, but all the signs point to an inadequate bill that does not effectively attack the healthcare system’s underlying problems. Wall Street is up and running again but does not seem to be effectively regulated. Sheila Blair, the Chairwoman of the FDIC, recently ripped the federal government’s plans to safeguard the financial system in the future as “inadequate.”

In this sense, Barack Obama’s presidency so far has been a disappointment. He was supposed to inaugurate a new type of politics. He talked about “lean but effective” government on the campaign trail. This was one of the reason so many moderate conservatives switched sides to vote for him, apart from the fact that John McCain seemed unwedded to traditional conservative philosophy and more attached to a whatever-McCain-thinks-is-best-at-the-moment plan, which, as its title suggests, varied. (When conservatives start complaining that their man is, of all things, unpredictable, you know you have a problem.) But most moderate conservatives were persuaded to vote for Obama because, while they understood that he would expand government’s purview, perhaps dramatically, they also thought that he would do it efficiently and effectively. The abstract notion of individualism might get dinged some, but America would gain more practical benefits in exchange.

Nine months into the new administration and, while government has expanded, effectiveness does not seem to have come with size. Who’s to blame? The Republicans are routinely and rightly a target of criticism for the legislature’s current paralysis: Rush Limbaugh’s wish that Obama fails has become emblematic of the post-Bush GOP mindset. But the GOP has neither the political strength nor the credibility to hold up reform; the major problem here is that the general public has yet to get on the “change” bandwagon, and their absence points to problems with the White House’s approach.

The most striking and problematic aspect of the Obama Administration’s push for reform centers on the President, who was elected not so much for articulating policy recommendations moored in political philosophy as for being Barack Obama. On the campaign trail he was consistently hammered when he descended into details and was constantly reinforced for representing a vision of positive, if undefined, change. This pattern has continued into the White House. The conventional wisdom behind the President’s move to outsource the writing of the healthcare bill to congress is that he was over-learning the lessons of the Clinton debacle of 1994, when Hillary Clinton unsuccessfully tried to cram draconian reforms down legislators’ throats. Maybe, but this seems less like overt caution and more a reflection of the President’s preferred governing style. He wants to be a unifier, which does not entail generating division. Yet his proposals—from healthcare to climate change—are transformative and, as such, unavoidably divisive.All of this leads to an odd duality, as the President dutifully pushes reform while remaining somewhat aloof from the nitty-gritty of debate. When things get out of hand—after the August town hall fiascos, for example—he appears in an oratorical flourish, but, again, these events feel more like an exercise in superficial unity than pieces of a well-thought out, committed campaign for reform. It is beginning to seem like every time there’s a major crisis, the White House’s cure for the problem is another presidential address for the purpose of “putting the debate in perspective.” This ends up cheapening what would otherwise be an unassailable talent; it looks as if Obama uses rhetoric not so much to connect with Americans as to polish his image as a unifier.

None of these tendencies point to bad intentions on the part of the White House. People tend to learn from past experience and for Obama, past experience as well as temperament dictate staying above the fray. He also has to grapple with the inherent ambiguity of the Presidency, which confers upon him occupant duties as the leader of both a party and a nation.

But strategy changes with circumstance, and since Andrew Jackson made populism part of his repertoire, Americans have seen their president less as a figurehead and more as their personal representative, the human face of what can at times be a distant, self-interested system. Everyone knows Congress is inefficient; it’s actually a somewhat comforting thought. (Should Nancy Pelosi’s ideas be the stuff of which direct policy is made?) But we feel differently about our presidents. We know, however much we criticize, that the occupants of the Oval Office went through fire to get there. We know that the President, whatever his background or party, is contemplating greatness as he takes the Oath; that’s part of the beauty, and the danger, of the office. We give Presidents the big microphone for a reason; we want them to use it.

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