Friday, January 09, 2009

the world's shortest honeymoon (part two)

Conventional opinion has it that Barack Obama enters the presidency riding a huge wave of popular approval and will be--if not the most popular president in history--certainly the best of the (admittedly mixed) recent lot. Yet already one can perceive a rather less sanguine outcome, and not far off, either. Consider the following:

1. Obama is promising to take on so many different issues, so quickly, that disappointment is all but inevitable. So far he is promising a several hundred billion dollar tax cut; an eight hundred billion (at last count) "stimulus" package; and a reworking of social security and medicare at the same time. By most standards this would amount to the most impressive package of legislation in one year at least since 1933--and without even reaching national health care or his many other policy proposals.

2. Obama is establishing a pattern of vagueness in policy pronouncements, coupled with inspiring but ultimately empty rhetoric, that encourage both friends and enemies to assert their own agendas without fear of offending him. Even before his inauguration, there is sniping over the content of the stimulus package, potential difficulty on several appointments, and so forth. Because Obama does not seem wedded to one or another ideological position--or simply because he is young and inexperienced--no one, from Arlen Specter to the Democratic leadership, seems especially worried about offending him.

3. The combination of Obama's emphasis on domestic issues, and the uncertain ideology of his foreign policy team, gives foreign countries little incentive to moderate their behavior in America's interest. Israel, for example, appears to be essentially brushing off U.S. proposals for a cease-fire, and probably rushed the Gaza offensive because it was not sure it could rely on Obama's (like Bush's) support. Obama's rather vague pronouncements on the Middle East have done little to reassure them.

None of this is necessarily fatal, and Obama weathered similar criticisms about vagueness in his presidential campaign. But campaigns are not governing, and the combination of a vastly overambitious domestic agenda and burgeoning foreign policy crises--all the while relying on a vague "change" mantra that is not anchored in any substantive political philosophy--suggests a daunting first year. I have lately been reading "Dead Certain," Robert Draper's fine book about the Bush Presidency. Bush came in with another vague mantra (compassionate convervatism) and a sense that his personal skills, as in Austin, would override substantive political problems. It didn't quite work out that way.


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