Saturday, June 2, 2012

Ian M. MacIsaac: Is President Obama's leadership dynamic, or just unsure?

  For many Americans who were energized and inspired politically by Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, his record as president has been distinctly dispiriting and disillusioning.

  Some campaign promises were kept--like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act.

  Others--such as a cap-and-trade bill, and the immigration reform bill even John McCain wanted--fizzled in the face of what was perceived by the media as weak leadership from the White House in the face of predictable opposition from Republicans in Congress, particularly in the Senate.

  And even the promises that were kept, such as the health care bill, came through in such a watered-down form that they scarcely resembled the bills proposed by then-Senator Obama in 2008.

  The stimulus was $787 billion--but far below the $1.1 to 1.3 trillion that economic experts--both Obama's and those from third parties--estimated was needed to give the economy the jump-start it needed.

  The health care bill was formed around a mandate as opposed to the promised public option--not even to mention single-payer, when then-Illinois State Senator Obama had endorsed in the late 1990s.


  Each of these bills were signed by the president only after protracted congressional negotation, argument, and--in some cases, finally--compromise. In each of these bills, the president got less than he originally requested and pushed for.

  This is only to be expected. It is rare that a president proposes a bill and gets exactly what he requests and exactly as much of it as he requested.

  But many--in the media, in the president's own party, and among his supporters--feel that President Obama made far less use of what Theodore Roosevelt called the president's "bully pulpit" than he should have, or could have.

  The summer of 2010 cap-and-trade bill, in particular, was a debacle for the president, with his original proposals failing in Congress.

  Obama supporters watched in awe as he seemed to simply give up on the issue. He let the bill die in Congress, and did not attempt to pass another version of the bill.


  It will take investigative reporters, historians, and political scientists decades of interviews and research to determine exactly what was going on in the Oval Office and behind the scenes in the White House and in Congress during the debates over each of these bills.

  Perhaps the passage of time and the view through history will prove President Obama to have been a more effective chief executive than he appeared to be to the public as the events happened.

  But the question nevertheless remains as to why, on certain issues, he has chosen to forsake his low-key, behind-the-scenes role--one that he has played as a politician for years, long before he entered the White House--and instead played the role of the president-as-national-leader-of-opinion that presidents like LBJ, Reagan, and George W. Bush so often attempted to play.

  Obama's 'principled moments,' until recently, focused on foreign policy. The first and perhaps most important of his life pre-presidency was, of course, his stand against the Iraq War back in 2002--before the war even began and back when most of those in Congress, even the Ted Kennedys and Hillary Clintons, were voting to authorize invasion.

  Of course, perhaps the single most important day of his presidency centered on the targeted assassination of the United States's number one international enemy, in a daring raid across the mountains of Afghanistan into Pakistani territory.


  On few domestic issues has Obama been so gutsy, or so immediately successful and praised for his actions.

  The only one that comes immediately come to mind for most Americans is his stance on gay marriage. Both since it was such a recent shift in the president's usual strategy, as well because it was such a shock for the president's followers and watchers--many of whom did not think he had it in him.

  It was always expected--on the left for positive reasons and on the right for reasons every bit as negative--that eventually President Obama would endorse marriage equality. Virtually no one expected it so soon, however, even after Vice President Biden's endorsement of marriage equality three days before.

  It was not the president's first suprisingly courageous stand on gay rights as president. His repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell had first been planned for Obama's first hundred days, and then was pushed back more than a year and a half--finally going to the president's desk in September 2010.

  Late 2010 was one of Obama's stormiest seasons in office. He was low in the polls compared to his current standing, and had just passed a divisive health care bill.

  It was hardly the moment one would expect for a concerted, weeks-long political effort conducted by the White House on an issue of social policy that, statistically, directly affects less than 10% of the country's population.

Nonetheless, through concerted work with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama got it done. And although it involved the passage of no legislation, Obama's 'coming out' on gay marriage this month was equally impressive, equally out-of-character, separate from the trend.


  Of course, the reason for a piece of legislation's success is often far more devious--and even more frequently far more well-intentioned--than the legislation's effects happen to become. For progressives, these successes are to be highly regarded for their own sake.

  Many progressives and left-wingers have found themselves nonetheless spooked by the timing of the president's revelation on the issue of marriage equality.

  He had famously stated that his views on the issue were "evolving," but many true-hearted progressives still will doubt the conviction of Obama's announcement. How can he prove, after all, that this wasn't simply a calculated re-election move, a way of bringing an even clearer "right-side-of-history" contrast with Mitt Romney?

  Of course, politics shows us that an announcement can be honest and heartfelt and still be calculated for perfect timing and maximum exposure.

  The American public has never had trouble accepting the latter motivation in its politicians. But the former is much rarer among public figures, in this country or really any other.

  For what reason, then, should the public believe Obama on the issue of gay marriage--or, really, on any issue?

  More than anything, Barack Obama is the first really trustworthy American president since Jimmy Carter. (And a far more effective president than Carter, to boot.)

  And being able to get Americans to trust his judgment even when his actions or intentions are not immediately clear or popular is a feat that no president since Vietnam and Watergate has been able to accomplish.

  If Barack Obama is able to do so through the rest of his presidency and not have some Nixon-level fall from grace, he will likely prove in retrospect to have been more effective than imagined.

 About the author: Ian MacIsaac is a staff writer for the Capital City Free Press. He is a history major at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama and former co-editor of the school newspaper, the AUMnibus.

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