The Public Eye: Get Tough, Obama

By Bob Burnett
Thursday November 19, 2009 - 09:42:00 AM

A year after Barack Obama won the presidential election, it’s apparent the change he promised isn’t going to come easy. The Nov. 3 election results indicate a rising level of discontent with Obama and Democrats, in general. Confronted by massive problems, Washington is moving at a glacial pace. What should be done to quicken the tempo, to make change happen more rapidly? 

It’s tempting to say that America is burning while Congress dithers; to suggest that while the United States is beset by enormous challenges—the economy, healthcare, global climate change, the war in Afghanistan, to mention only a few—many senators and representatives don’t seem to get it. The arduous path of healthcare reform indicates how difficult it is to move significant legislation through Congress. And, unfortunately, the Senate seems to be able to only tackle one big bill at a time, so there is a rapidly growing queue of necessary legislation: things that should be done, but have an uncertain outcome. 

While it’s convenient to blame everything on Congress, particularly those senators—mostly Republicans—who object to change and drag their feet on all significant legislation, the problem goes deeper. There are four parts of the problem: the president, Congress, Washington culture, and the American people. But the buck has to stop somewhere and that’s on Obama’s desk. 

While the president’s approval ratings have stayed relatively constant over the past few months—53 percent of Americans think he’s doing a good job and 41 percent disagree—there’s been a rising level of concern about his decision-making style. The latest Gallup Poll indicated that 72 percent of respondents felt that Obama “is willing to make hard decisions” and 66 percent regarded him as “a strong and decisive leader.” Nonetheless, there was a marked difference depending upon affiliation: 90 percent of Democrats regarded him as “a strong and decisive leader,” while only 42 percent of Republicans shared this perception. And Obama’s level of support has dropped among Independents. 

Meanwhile, in the blogosphere, there is increasing discontent with both Obama’s style and his priorities. Recently, Paul Krugman observed, “President Obama came into office with a strong mandate and proclaimed the need to take bold action on the economy. His actual actions, however, were cautious rather than bold. They were enough to pull the economy back from the brink, but not enough to bring unemployment down.” A fellow New York Times columnist, Bob Herbert wrote: “More and more Americans are questioning [Obama’s] priorities, including millions who went to the mat for him in last year’s election. The biggest issue by far for most Americans is employment.” 

Both Krugman and Herbert imply Obama should deemphasize healthcare—let it take however long it takes to wend its way through Congress—and focus exclusively on the economy. That seems impractical; if Obama doesn’t push healthcare legislation it is likely to flounder and that would spell catastrophe for Democratic hopes in the mid-term elections and Obama’s presidency, in general. On the other hand, the current situation finds Obama with three number one priorities: employment, healthcare, and Afghanistan. That’s not a good situation. 

By year end, the president needs to make a decision about Afghanistan, get Congress to pass healthcare reform, and then focus on the economy. 

Those who know Obama say his natural inclination is to build consensus, but when his back is against the wall he can stiffen his spine and adopt a more directive style. That happened during his 2008 Presidential campaign and that’s what’s called for now. 

An important aspect of Obama’s mandate was changing Washington’s “business as usual” ethos. He’s tried to work with Republicans and, in general, to work within the Washington culture. Obviously, that hasn’t worked. Republicans haven’t made any effort to meet Obama halfway and Washington insiders are stuck in the dysfunctional pattern adopted during the Reagan era. Meanwhile, America’s problems have grown more severe and Americans more depressed. 

Americans have short memories. When voters go to the polls on Nov. 2, 2010, they will look at the economy and ask themselves: Am I better off since Barack Obama became president? If their answer is no, they are going to punish Democrats. Obama has 12 months to get it together. 

Change starts at the top. The tone in Washington has to change. The sense of urgency has to change. The president’s style has to change. 

Democrats have the votes to pass a job-creation bill, healthcare reform, changes to the US financial system, and other essential legislation. They must do this even if it means abandoning the Senate’s precious cloture policy. The United States is in crisis mode. The president must adopt a more forceful manner. Now is the time for Obama to get tough. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at