Sunday, October 31, 2010

Give Obama a Break

New York Times:

In politics as in finance, markets overshoot. Traders and voters swoon over stocks or politicians one week, and then rage at them the next.

That’s why I’m feeling a bit sorry for President Obama as we approach a midterm election in which he is poised to be cast off like an old sock. The infatuation with Mr. Obama was overdone in 2008, and so is the rejection of him today.

So here’s my message: Give him a chance.

The sourness toward Mr. Obama reminds me of the crankiness toward Al Gore in 2000. We in the news media were tough on Mr. Gore, magnifying his weaknesses, and that fed into a general disdain. So some liberals voted for Ralph Nader, and George W. Bush moved into the White House.

Like others, I have my disappointments with Mr. Obama, including his tripling of forces in Afghanistan. Yet the central problem isn’t that Mr. Obama has been a weak communicator as president or squandered his political capital — although both are true — but that we’re mired in the aftermath of the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s.

After all, Gallup polls still show Mr. Obama with public approval a hair ahead of Ronald Reagan’s at a similar point in his presidency (when America was also in recession). And maybe the best comparison is with President George H. W. Bush, a solid president and admirable man who had stratospheric approval ratings in 1991 at the end of the Persian Gulf war and then was fired by the public a year later when he sought re-election — because of a much milder recession than today’s.

Bill Clinton, who was as good a president as we’ve had in modern times, captured Mr. Obama’s challenge: “I’d like to see any of you get behind a locomotive going straight downhill at 200 miles an hour and stop it in 10 seconds,” Mr. Clinton told a crowd in Washington State, according to a Washington Post account.

Mr. Clinton also noted that the midterm elections are not a referendum. “Let’s make this a referendum on everything that’s bothering you about life right now,” he paraphrased the Republicans as saying, before adding: “It is not a referendum. It. Is. A. Choice. A choice between two different sets of ideas.”

The criticisms of Mr. Obama from the left often ring true to me, but I also think we elide the political difficulties of getting better legislation past obstructionists in Congress. A “public option” would have improved the health care package in my judgment, but it might also have killed it.

The economic crisis has also distracted from authentic accomplishments. Presidents since Harry Truman have been pushing for health care reform, and it was Mr. Obama who finally achieved it. The economy seemed at risk of another Great Depression when he took office, and that was downgraded to a recession from which we have officially emerged — even though the pain is still biting.

Mr. Obama has also helped engineer a successful auto bailout, a big push for clean energy, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to reduce sex discrimination, tighter tobacco regulations aimed at the 1,000 Americans under age 18 who become smokers each day, and tighter financial regulation including reform of credit card rules.

Above all, Mr. Obama has been stellar in one area crucial to our country’s future: education. Democrats historically have been AWOL on school reform because they are beholden to teacher unions, but Mr. Obama has reframed the debate and made it safe to talk about teaching standards and “bad teachers.” Until Mr. Obama, Democrats barely acknowledged that it was possible for a teacher to be bad.

Mr. Obama used stimulus money to keep teachers from being laid off and to nudge states to reform education so as to benefit children for years to come. His “Race to the Top” focused states on education reform as never before.

He has also revamped and expanded student loans and bolstered support for community colleges, opening a new path to higher education for working-class Americans. Millions more Americans may end up in college.

Presidents in both parties have talked for years about the importance of education, but until now it has been lip service. Improving America’s inner-city schools will be a long slog, but Mr. Obama has done far more than any other president in this area — arguably our single greatest national challenge. In my view, it’s his greatest achievement, and it has been largely ignored.

So, sure, go ahead and hold Mr. Obama’s feet to the fire. He deserves to be held accountable. But let’s not allow economic malaise to cloud our judgment and magnify America’s problems in ways that become self-fulfilling.

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Obama warns of policy rollback if Republicans win

President Barack Obama warned Saturday that Republicans could roll back his agenda if they prevail in Tuesday's congressional elections as he sought to rally Democrats in a final campaign push.

Making his way through a four-state tour, Obama implored Democratic voters to show up in large numbers. Polls show his party is likely to lose control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans and see its Senate majority weakened.

"Unless each and every one of you turn out and get your friends to turn out and get your families to turn out then we could fall short and all the progress that we've made over the last couple of years can be rolled back," Obama told cheering campaign volunteers at his first stop in Philadelphia.

In his hometown of Chicago, a crowd estimated by Democratic officials at more than 30,000 people held signs saying "Vote this Tuesday" and "Moving America Forward."

"We've got a lot of work to do, not only to move the country forward but to make sure that the progress we've made continues," Obama said.

The president and his Democrats are facing voter discontent over an ailing economy and persistently high unemployment.

Republicans have scored points by attacking Obama's agenda, including a healthcare overhaul and huge economic stimulus plan, that they call a government overreach. Loss of the House could stall Obama's legislative efforts.

Representative John Boehner, who would likely be the new Speaker of the House if Republicans win a majority, said Obama's agenda had not fixed the country's economic problems.

"These problems didn't start under President Obama. But instead of fixing them, his policies have made them worse," Boehner said in the weekly Republican address.


Obama is battling an "enthusiasm gap," with polls showing Republicans more likely to vote than Democrats.

Another problem has been rising complaints from liberals, who helped sweep Obama to victory in the 2008 election, that he has not done enough for their causes, such as ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, closing the Guantanamo military prison and reforming the immigration system.

At a rally in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Obama was heckled by a small group of AIDS activists chanting "Stop global AIDS," the latest of several such protests at his campaign events. The crowd of 9,000 drowned them out with chants of "Obama, Obama."

Forced off script, an exasperated Obama urged the hecklers to redirect their protests at Republicans who he said had no interest in funding international AIDS programs.

"We're in a difficult election," Obama said in Philadelphia. "This election is not just going to set the stage for the next two years. It's going to set the stage for the next 10, for the next 20."