Sunday, December 27, 2009

obama at one year

I would give him at best about a B. The good news is he seems competent, has a reasonably clear and coherent agenda, and has kept most of his base intact. The bad news is he seems slowly but surely to be losing everyone else. There is also a sense of diminished stature: too much celebrity and too little accomplishment, and personal energy wasted on efforts (the would-be Chicago Olympics, Copenhagen, the Nobel Prize) that bring little or few real results. Current developments, like the health care bill, carry the potential to strengthen but also to hurt him: the long delay between likely enactment and actual provision of benefits is especially dicey here.

A problem in evaluating Obama, like all Presidents, is what standard to judge him by. The reality is that it is extremely difficult for any President to be successful under current conditions, and probably that much more so for a left-of-center politician. This results in part from economic and budgetary constraints, but also from underlying political realities.

In the period marked by roughly the 1930s to the 1970s, politics was conditioned by the threat of the extreme left, which was taken seriously abroad (the Soviet Union and Communist China) and at some points (notably the 1960s) at home. Because of this threat, traditionally conservative interest groups--business, the professions, the political and economic elite--perceived it as in their interest to pursue a moderate reform agenda, if only to avoid more radical change. The liberal Republicans and establishment Democrats in America--like the Social or Christian Democrats in Europe--were typical of this way of thinking.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, and the collapse of the extreme left in the West, this incentive largely disappeared. Conservatives now feel comfortable directing unwavering fire at any and all liberal proposals, and are strengthened by the addition to their ranks of many ordinary people who cannot stomach the left on religious or cultural grounds. That the left itself is divided along economic and cultural lines--and becomes more so as it tries to expand--doesn't help, either. The most conspicuously successful liberals in this period, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, succeeded largely by accommodating these trends and governing as moderate conservatives, something Obama has so far refused to do.

So Obama has been disappointing in some ways, but it is not clear that anyone else--at least, any other liberal Democrat--could have done much better. For all his unique characteristics, his trajectory is not really that different from other liberals in an essentially conservative age, with the difference that he has (so far) proved less willing to abandon his liberalism for political gain. As the pressures on him build--and the conservative resurgence continues--it will be interesting to see if this pattern continues.


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