Monday, 30 November 2009

Obama's Two Biggest Blunders: What do They Have in Common?

I'll go out on a limb -- actually, I don't think I have to go very far out -- and wager that wise historians of the future will chronicle two big blunders of President Obama's first year in office. They will be:

1. His kid-glove handling of the banks that caused the financial crisis. There was too much "please" and "if you don't mind" and mucho foot-dragging on reforming a broken system and rooting out wrongdoers. The president expressed a little outrage, maybe once or twice, then drew back into his shell. Meanwhile the government has handed over billions to the banking industry, very few strings attached, as unemployment soars. The perception on Main Street: the Obama administration is beholden to a plutocracy that really runs the U.S. of A.

There is much anger about the bailouts that's on a steady simmer right below the surface, I think. It will cripple Obama's future ability to be effective. Paul Krugman really nailed it with his recent op-ed piece pointing out the great tragedy in how the White House played patty cake with the bankers: our leaders have blown a load of credibility with the American public. Obama an agent for change? Yeah, right.

2. His ramping up of the war in Afghanistan. Public sentiment is already turning hard against this war. We're tired of wars in distant lands that half of us can't locate on a globe; we're tired of the burden they place on our groaning budget deficits; we're tired of the open-endedness of these conflicts.

Obama will buck popular opinion, it appears, by sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. And we should all recognize that poker play: I call you and raise you 30,000 troops. This puts him 30,000 soldiers farther from extricating America from what will probably turn into a quagmire. I think it's a very dumb move from a very smart man. His decision puts me in mind of Hannah Arendt's wonderful book, "The March of Folly." Why do wise men persist in hopeless courses of action?

Anyway, before I get sidetracked too much, the central point: What do both of these blunders share? What's the common element? What weakness do they expose of Barack Obama -- by all accounts a highly intelligent man of a reflective nature, someone who can appreciate nuance, who has the native smarts to master any issue out there, no matter its complexity?

I would submit it's this: Obama has a weakness when it comes to bucking the system. He eagerly seeks compromise, tends to be conflict averse, and falls short on courage of conviction. With Wall Street, he didn't dare face down the banking industry. He expressed a little indignation and backed off. With the war in Afghanistan, he didn't dare to face down the military brass, who have sold him a bill of goods on what's achievable over there. He didn't want to be the guy who lost Afghanistan.

Someone might rebut: Well, what about health care? Someone who's wedded to the status quo wouldn't be trying to overhaul the health care system. That's true, and I think Obama dreams big. But look at how he's behaved with health care: He's introduced reform and made the soaring rhetorical speeches, then backed off to let Congress thrash out the actual bills. Public option? No public option? He's easy. Whatever.

Lyndon Johnson, by all accounts, was an arm twister. Barack Obama appears to be more a speechmaker -- and the words are starting to ring hollow.