Back in 2007, when Obama first began running for President, I shared many of the same misgivings that others had about his lack of experience. If Sarah Palin had only been the Governor Alaska for a year, then Obama had only been a United States Senator for three. Before that he had been an Illinois State Senator, but the State Senate, any state senate – as I knew from being on the staff of the Massachusetts Senate Ways & Means Committee for many years – is a long ways away from Capitol Hill. Obama wasn’t my first choice in the primaries.
What was a turning point for me was Obama’s response to the Reverend Wright controversy. In a speech delivered on March 8, 2008 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Obama spoke to us about race (as Jon Stewart would later say) “as if we were adults.” I also read “Dreams of my Father” and was intrigued by Obama’s multi-cultural background and the time he spent living in Indonesia. Here was a candidate who had actually had some experience of the world.
When he was elected President I had a couple of reactions to it. First, I was ecstatic that we had come so far as to actually elect a black man – okay, a half-black man – as President of the United States. I really didn’t think we were ready for that. Wasn’t that at least part of the fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream? (Parenthetically, if you live in the mostly-White city of Newton MA today, your mayor is African-American, your Governor is African-American, and your President is African-American. That’s got to be saying something.)
Second, I thought, “oh boy, Obama has just bought himself a heap of trouble.” The economy had just started to tank about a month before, and now Obama was coming into office at a time that would have challenged the most experienced of Chief Executives. And Obama had never been the Chief Executive of anything.
For the first two years, Obama tried hard to be bipartisan and work with the Congress to get the economy back on track. Initially he got some cooperation on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) passed back in February of 2009. Over the next couple of years Obama also tackled health care, modeled on the universal health system that Massachusetts had enacted under Governor Romney back in 2006 (now known as “Romneycare”). The federal bill (The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) was eventually passed on March 23, 2010, without a single Republican vote, notwithstanding that the individual mandate was the brainchild of the Heritage foundation and that the act copied most of the principles of Romneycare.
Riding the Teaparty-flavored disenchantment with the Affordable Care Act (now “Obamacare”) and the slow pace of the recovery, the Republicans recaptured the House in 2010 and made significant gains in the Senate. In October of 2010, right before the mid-term elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell famously declared that the “single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” It’s been gridlock ever since, highlighted by the stand-off over raising the debt ceiling at the end of 2011.
Now let’s be honest, Obama hasn’t been a perfect President. Given how little experience he had and what challenges he faced, you knew there was going to be a learning curve. On civil liberties, Obama has been curiously and disturbingly regressive, such as when he authorized a policy permitting the extrajudicial assassination of American citizens overseas. He has yet to close Guantanamo. It took him almost four years to endorse gay marriage. But given what he’s had to work with, I think he’s done a remarkable job.
Three things stand out for me: first, by the accounts of most of the leading economists, the stimulus that he shepherded through the Congress in his first year in office kept our recession from becoming a depression. Second, his decision to bail-out the auto industry seems to have been rewarded with an exceptional turn-around by the industry, and saved many jobs. And most significantly, he was able to do what neither Bill Clinton or any other President before him was able to do, which is to enact a program of Universal Health.
I’m not personally a big fan of the individual mandate, but it was the concession that was needed to stave off the full-throated opposition of the insurance industry, which would have sunk this effort like every effort before it. I believe that years from now we will look at the Affordable care Act the same way we now look at Social Security: of course it had to be done. The act is immensely complicated, and there may need to be substantial tweaking over the years, but moving us into the category of countries (like all those dreaded “socialist” European countries) that actually provides universal care for its citizens, is a long-overdue step in the right direction. Of course, most of those European countries provide free health care instead of subjecting their citizens to an individual mandate, but I digress. Once again.
If elected to a 2nd term, Obama is not going to have an easy time of it, given how divided the Congress and our nation are. I don’t think we should kid ourselves about that. But with the benefit of four years of executive experience, there are three things he could do with four more years:
First, keep a steady hand on the economy. If the Clinton and Bush years prove anything, I think they prove that a President can’t do much to grow the economy – it really is the private sector that has to do that – but a President can do a lot to destroy the economy. President’s can mostly assist the economy by keeping a steady hand and by trying to keep the Government out of the red. I’m sorry to say this to my Republican friends, but most of the blame for our current deficit really does have to go to George W. Bush, who turned a surplus into a deficit and then left office at the time when we most critically needed a federal stimulus. Obama did what needed to be done, what most economists were telling him he had to do, knowing that it would increase the deficit.
Second, point us more in the direction of energy independence and alternative fuels. As much as possible, Obama should tackle the issue of global warming. I would stay way from directly assisting new industries – Romney is right about one thing, the Government shouldn’t really be in the business of “picking winners and losers” – and concentrate instead on what the Government has always done best in this area, which is to fund basic research.
Third, if he has the energy left over, he could try one more time to tackle the Gordian knot that is the Israeli-Palestinian question. It won’t ever be solved without significant American assistance, and it doesn’t require the cooperation of Congress. If it could be solved, it would make the world immeasurably safer.
Finally, the last argument for another Obama Presidency is the likelihood that the next President will get to appoint one or two new justices to the Supreme Court. This isn’t the place or time for an extended discussion of the Supreme Court, but if you’ve followed the decision-making of Justices like Scalia, Alito, and especially Clarence Thomas, you know that this could be critical for our country’s future. Nuff said.