Sometimes it gets better by not getting worse
The 2008 election was, if nothing else, a clear signal that Americans were tired of a government that left them walking across broken china. The Bush administration got the country mired in not one but two wars that no one in charge seemed to know how to end. It very publicly botched the response to one of the biggest natural disasters in American history. It sent a nation that had begun to pay off its national debt spiraling ever deeper into the red. And for its swan song, it then drove the economy into the deepest ditch we've been in since the Great Depression.
Millions of people voted for President Obama with the idea that he would accomplish any number of great things and do so quickly. I wasn't in that class. Was I hopeful that he would work to change the tone of political debate and restore the focus to issues instead of sideshows and personalities? Without a doubt. But my bottom- line expectations were much lower: If he managed to govern without breaking more things, if he managed to stem the bleeding in domestic and foreign affairs alike, I'd consider him a success.
With fits and starts, Obama has done just that in his first year. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- a.k.a. the stimulus package -- used public infrastructure investments and targeted working-class tax cuts to keep a bad economic recession from lapsing into a bad economic depression. (Locally, it also staved off a budgetary disaster for Alabama for at least a year or two.) Obama has begun to look at how to bring our nation's spending and revenues closer together, even if the proposed cap on discretionary domestic spending isn't entirely up to that task and leaves the major drivers of debt -- defense and entitlements -- untouched. And Obama has committed to, if not an immediate end to the Iraq war, at least the beginning of an end to it.
Those are real accomplishments, but they aren't as visible as they should be. The major problem Obama has faced in his first year is that most of his best achievements are counterfactual. How do you convince people that even though things are bad, they would have been so much worse without your actions? How do you explain that even though unemployment is still increasing, things are getting better because you've slowed the rate at which it was going up? How do you convey that the status quo can be considered progress when the alternative might have been another layoff or another foreclosure?
As Obama rolls into year two, he may have found an answer that sounds all too easy: Just get out there and do it. In his State of the Union address and especially in his much-ballyhooed Q&A session with House Republicans earlier this week, the president has gone on the offensive, doing his best to knock down talking points with facts and disarm generalized fear and outrage with a calm manner and a smile. After months of hoping the results would speak for themselves, Obama has decided that he has to help speak for them.
He's already shown the ability to do more than damage control. The never-ending story that is the health care reform battle has overshadowed some of Obama's substantive victories: credit card reform, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the lifting of the ban on federal funding for stem cell research.
But now that the economic situation has begun to stabilize, Obama needs to do more. He has to sign a health care reform bill. He has to stiffen regulations on the big financial institutions that helped to crash the economy in the first place. And he has to do more to reduce the unemployment rate by promoting small business growth, investing in more infrastructure, and aiding state and local governments so they can avoid layoffs of teachers, police, and other public workers.
Will any or even all of that stop Republicans from gaining seats in Congress this year? Probably not, but that's beside the point. At least since World War II, the historical trend has been for the party out of power -- be it the Republicans or the Democrats -- to win more power on Capitol Hill. Some districts now represented by Democrats are just too conservative to go long without a Republican reclaiming their seat. It's a short-term adjustment.
Obama's focus should be -- and presumably is -- on the longer term. His task is to make the case to the American people, skeptical after decades of hearing the mantra that "government is the problem" -- that government actually can be a force for good if it's done right, and then proving through action that he and his team are the ones for the job. As the economic situation continues to stabilize, Obama should begin to get that opportunity.
But no matter how those efforts go, try not to forget that perhaps Obama's greatest virtue is not in what he does but in what he doesn't, not in what he says but in what he doesn't say, not in who he is but in who he isn't. And if you ever do forget, just ask the Europeans. They gave him a damn Nobel Peace Prize for little apparent reason other than the fact that he isn't George W. Bush.
I understand the sentiment. After eight years of china flying everywhere, it's a relief to see someone walk in the door and start picking up pieces instead of making more.