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One Year After Obama's Election: Still Smarter...Than The Alternative

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The day before I cast my vote for Barack Obama, I wrote a column titled "Barack Obama Is Smarter Than Us." By "us," I meant the legions of us lefty bloggers out here, who second-guessed his campaign on a daily basis for nigh on two years. I included myself in that "us" as well -- because, I fully admit, I got incredibly frustrated during Obama's campaign when he didn't do what I really, really wanted him to. Or didn't do it fast enough to suit me.

But you know what? He won anyway.

Here's part of what I wrote back then:

...I have to say, once again, that Barack Obama was right not to always listen to me, and others of my ilk. He knew through it all that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and that a purist lefty candidate would not win the White House. So I have to stand up and admit it.

Obama was right. We were wrong. And he has shown he knew what he was doing all along, which makes me even more comfortable casting my vote for him tomorrow.

I also wrote, at the time:

Should Obama be elected, and should he run his White House the way he has run his campaign; then we are about to see some professionalism and basic competence in Washington once again, instead of the pure partisan rancor and dysfunction we've (sadly) become accustomed to.

So, after reflecting on how I felt a year ago during the election itself and how I feel now, I do have to say that the old adage is true: governing is harder than campaigning.

The eternal question within the District of Columbia for an "outsider" running a successful campaign on "changing the system" (Note to our younger readers: Barack Obama is not the first to have come up with this theme) is, of course: "Will you change Washington... or will Washington change you?"

Barack Obama was always a bit of a blank canvas for everyone. The Righties were incensed by this, and tried to portray him as some sort of empty suit, building castles in the air upon his lofty campaign rhetoric. But the Lefties were almost as bad, attempting to paint their own picture upon this blank canvas with the funny name... and, by doing so, declare Obama one of them. You might say the Lefties took up residence in Obama's air castles, smug in their belief that he would (after he was elected) do what they wanted (and indeed expected) him to, rather than what he actually said he was going to do. Or not do.

Obama, though, was not the picture either side painted of him on this blank canvas. He was, and always has been, his own man.

The disillusionment and disappointment a lot of Lefties are feeling right now is a direct result of their own refusal to hear what Obama was actually saying during the campaign, versus what they really wanted him to say, or "heard" him say, somehow. That may be a fairly harsh assessment for some people to hear, but I believe it is true to some extent. The feeling of crashing back down to Earth is usually the end result of attempting to live in a castle in the air. Some of the Left's disappointment, to be sure, is over actual broken campaign promises; but most of it is over their perceptions of Obama that didn't quite prove to be true in the end.

I have to say that I pride myself (as someone who does a halfway-decent imitation of a "pundit" on the interwebs) for never having totally "drunk the Obama Kool-Aid." I apologize if it causes offense, but I've always seen him as a politician. A brilliant politician, to be sure, and one whose like we may not see for another generation in American politics (in other words, not "just a politician" as some sort of pejorative), but a politician nonetheless. For better or worse.

Take the issue of foreign policy, for example. Obama campaigned on getting out of Iraq. He spoke of moving thousands of American troops out on a monthly basis, beginning almost immediately after he took office, until all combat forces had come home. Both the Left and the Right (using different language to describe it, of course) decided that Obama wanted to get out of Iraq as soon as could be safely arranged. But then, at the last minute, George W. Bush signed a Status Of Forces Agreement which pretty much laid down the "timetable for withdrawal" to follow. Obama, once sworn into office, has largely kept Bush's plan intact. The first stage was withdrawing from Iraqi cities this summer. The second stage will be the real troop drawdown, which should begin shortly after Iraq has a national election (currently slated for January). Neither the Left nor the Right's caricature of Obama as Commander-In-Chief turned out to be true. He took into account the "situation on the ground," and changed his strategy accordingly -- something neither side really expected him to do, it should be noted.

Or take the Afghanistan situation. Throughout the campaign, Obama spoke of Afghanistan as being the war we really should be fighting, rather than Iraq. The "good" war, if you will. He spoke of sending around 10,000 more American troops over there right away. Now, as Obama decides what the strategy will be for the coming year, the Right is trying to portray him as some sort of wimp who is going to lose the war by "dithering" (as Dick Cheney put it); and the Left is portraying him as somehow betraying their idealistic anti-war image of Obama. The telling thing to me is that neither side either: (a) admits that Obama was always hawkish on the Afghanistan war; or (b) even noticed or has seen fit to mention that Obama has already fulfilled his campaign promise -- threefold -- when he sent 30,000 more troops over there, earlier this year.

Perception -- as in "people's perception of Obama" -- seems to be more important to a lot of folks than the reality of Obama the politician, or Obama the president. On both sides.

The Right, after the election, wasted no time in trying to paint Obama as all sorts of things that he wasn't, and was never going to be. They haven't let up for a minute -- and they won't, for the next three years. The Left has been shocked by all of this unseemliness, since they conjured images up of everyone singing "Kumbaya" after Obama's inauguration -- conveniently forgetting that whole "Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy" thing that Bill Clinton had to put up with (also from Day One, in his presidency). Or the way Dubya started his term, for that matter. Just because an election's over does not mean that the losing side in the election is going to suddenly "see the light" of the winning side -- it never has in American politics, and it never will.

Expectations after Obama took office, from both the Left and Right (again, in different ways), were high. The Right -- some of them, at least -- think America is truly on the brink of becoming (take your pick) Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or even (conservatives shudder at the suggestion), France. The Left -- some of them, at least -- actually believed in their own dreams of a Progressive Utopia, even though what Obama actually said during the campaign bore little resemblance to it.

Now, all of this isn't to say that I don't have my own annoyances with Barack Obama, which I point out frequently here in public. He has either broken or severely backtracked on a number of his campaign promises, I fully admit. But he has also kept and delivered upon a downright astonishing number (for any politician) of campaign promises, as well. Governing is always harder than campaigning, and every politician is forced at times to realize that what sounded so glib while knocking his opponent during a rally of the faithful is really a lot tougher than it seemed at the time. This is natural, although some of Obama's supporters may be too young to have ever seen it before in a politician of their own party whom they admired greatly on the hustings, giving his stump speech. There's always a bit of letdown, and because Obama was being held to such a high standard (the absolute ramparts of the air castles, as it were), the letdown is even more keenly felt by some.

Millions of Americans did have sky-high expectations for Obama. But he has been more closely examined and criticized and covered by the media than just about anyone I can remember. The media, hilariously, calls Obama (in disparaging tones) a "media rock star" -- without realizing the irony that the only thing they're condemning by using such a term is themselves. You can't be a media star without a willing media. If proof is needed -- look at us. Here we are, critically examining Obama's "first year," when, in actual fact, he has served less than three hundred days in office. Because, you see, Barack Obama doesn't get a first year. He gets a first nine-and-a-half months. That's the way it goes if your name is Obama, I guess.

I was at a party recently, and a close friend and I were discussing the subject of Obama, his "first year," and this article (which I was then considering how to write). A quick rundown on this friend: she's a Union officer and organizer, she would rather be dipped in molten lava than vote Republican, and she keeps up on the political scene and the news about as much as any Huffington Post reader. She also, from Union negotiations with local government, understands both the slowness and obstacles to getting good things done, and also the fact that sometimes you have to compromise and you don't get everything you want.

But, after circling around for a while in describing her disappointment in some of what Obama has done (mostly "not done," if truth be told), she finally, in exasperation, said what she really felt, in response to something I said along the lines of: "If Obama had overturned 'Don't Ask/Don't Tell' on his first day in office, but failed on healthcare reform -- would you be happier with the result than if it was the other way around?".

She summed up her frustration with Barack Obama not going further faster in a very visceral way: "I want it all," she said, perhaps unconsciously quoting the late Freddie Mercury. "I want it all, and I want it now!" Specifically, what she wants is: Democrats in Congress to act like Democrats, and act like they have a majority; Obama to forcefully get out there and fight for what he campaigned for -- "Change we can believe in!"; Obama to be the "fierce advocate" for gay rights he promised he'd be; Obama to stop bailing out Wall Street and pay a lot more attention to Main Street; Obama to send George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to Guantanamo Bay where they would be subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques" until they came clean about the past eight years; the Democrats to pick up about 50 or 60 seats in the House in 2010 and about 20 more seats in the Senate; Harry Reid to be replaced as Senate Majority Leader, tout suite; Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers to be replaced, also immédiatement; Union strength to return to about where it was in... oh... 1958, say; Alan Grayson to appear on every political talk show for the next four years, on a daily basis; John Boehner and Mitch McConnell never to appear on her television screen, ever again, on any program; Sarah Palin to be a miserable failure at anything she attempts in the future; and President Obama to have a magic wand which he can wave and get Congress to do exactly what he wants them to do. Oh, and the memory of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of her state to be permanently excised from her memory, I should mention that one, too.

She's not alone in any of that, either. That particular ethereal castle's booked solid, and has a waiting list as long as your arm to get into. I sympathize with most of what she felt, myself. It sounds like a pretty good place to live in, or even to visit; the way we all used to tune in each week to The West Wing, to see how life was like in the alternate universe where Martin Sheen was president. Or, perhaps, another universe in which Obama conducts himself much as President (or "King" as it were) George W. Bush conducted himself, in regards to Congress.

But it's not reality. It's not the reality we live in. This reality is a lot more ugly, and a lot more concrete. Obama is not King. Obama really believes reaching out to the other side is a good and important thing to do, and not just a campaign promise. Congress still has a role under our Constitution, as inconvenient as it is to admit this fact. Lobbyists still exist. Washington is still situated on a former swamp, having only exchanged alligators for alligator wingtips on K Street. Congresscritters (far too many of them) are still absolute whores for big corporate campaign contributions. 'Twas ever thus in the District. There's only so much one man (no matter how powerful, or what his name is) can do to drain this particular swamp.

And while I would have loved to see some cage-fighting Democrats beating down Republican opponents on the Hill in the past nine months, I have to admit that what I wrote a year ago is a double-edged knife -- it cuts both ways. While we who consider ourselves "down in the trenches" in these day-to-day battles would absolutely love it if we got stronger backing and stronger leadership from the White House at times, what we are really hoping for is merely a reversal of fortunes in Washington, not a true change. Again, what I wrote back then:

Should Obama be elected, and should he run his White House the way he has run his campaign; then we are about to see some professionalism and basic competence in Washington once again, instead of the pure partisan rancor and dysfunction we've (sadly) become accustomed to.

"Pure partisan rancor" can come from both sides -- we'd all do well to remember that.

Which returns us to our primary question: "Has Washington changed Obama, or has Obama changed Washington?"

I would answer this in two ways. The first is to state that Obama has changed Washington in a very critical way -- because Democrats are now on the offensive. Democrats are now driving the bus. This is not always entirely apparent (they are, after all, Democrats), but think about it dispassionately for a moment -- Democrats are the ones proposing legislation, and Democrats are the ones squabbling about what it will contain. Even after the 2006 sweep of Congress, the agenda in D.C. largely remained Republican, since no matter what Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid managed to pass, if it wasn't sufficiently acceptable to Bush and his Republican sycophants, it would not have become law. This has changed, in a big way. It can be argued that this is not due to Obama himself, but rather to the partisan power dynamic which exists now, as opposed to back then -- but that would be to ignore the reason for this change: Barack Obama being elected president.

And it's a bigger change than most people give him credit for, or indeed, even think about.

The second thing that Obama is trying to change is the 24-hour-news-cycle, short-sighted nature of Washington thinking (or what passes for "thinking" in the punditocracy). The jury is still largely out on this one, I have to admit. The most impressive thing about Obama, which I have noticed over and over again in the past nine months or so, is that he absolutely refuses to be drawn in to trivial subjects -- which, it must be pointed out, cause vapors, fainting, shrieking, and even (at times) heads exploding among the cable news channels. Put succinctly: Obama takes the long view. Always. Even when all around him are taking a very, very short view -- for the sake of puffing some stupid playground battle among politicians into some improved cable chat show ratings. Obama, to a very large extent, just doesn't play that game. He simply refuses to, over and over again. The only time he's really slipped up on this front was the whole "beer summit" nonsense, for which he can be forgiven (seeing as how a friend of his was involved).

To me, this -- if he manages to succeed in the end -- would be "change" I could indeed believe in. The shortening of the American attention span, and the concomitant idiocy-pretending-to-be-depth stoked by the 24-hour news cycle is one of the chief culprits in the crime of American politicians being seemingly incapable of having serious debates about serious subjects with long-range implications in the modern age. If Obama can manage to overcome this prattling nonsense, and hence rise above the rank stupidity of filling up the airwaves with non-stories on a daily basis -- then he will have achieved more than I ever thought any politician could, in today's media world.

Of course, he'll probably fail at that. P.T. Barnum's "there's one born every minute" maxim does come to mind. But I have to give Obama credit for at least trying.

That's what it all comes down to, really. Do you still give Obama the benefit of the doubt? I have to admit here, his supporters have used the line "it's only been X months..." as an excuse to deflect Obama criticism so many times now that it is indeed beginning to wear a bit thin. We're not talking about a true "first year" for Obama today, but that actual milestone isn't all that far away. And one year is precisely one-fourth of a president's term.

The other question it really all boils down to is one of trust. Do you still trust President Obama to do the right thing in most situations? I did back when I voted for him, and I have to admit that I still do. I have reservations, I'm a bit wary at times over specific actions Obama takes, and strategies he employs (or doesn't employ); but that core of trust in Obama -- as a politician, and with eyes wide open on my part -- still exists, I have to say. And while Obama's approval polls are down a bit from the stratospheric highs he entered office with, he still enjoys support from just about exactly the same percentage of Americans who voted for him on election day last year. And that is a measure, in a very real way, about how the public still trusts Obama to the same degree they did last year. Which, I have to admit, is a comforting thought.

Especially when you consider the alternative. Imagine where we'd be now with President John "the fundamentals of the economy are strong" McCain, and Vice President Sarah (shudder) Palin. Each and every time you get disappointed in President Obama, or disagree with something he says or does, ask yourself: "How would this discussion be different if McCain had won?"

That kind of puts Obama's "first year" in perspective for me, at least. Obama may not be smarter than all of us, but he sure is smarter by a long shot than McCain would have been. And that, for now, is enough for me.

 

[Technical Note: Earlier, I used what can only be described as metaphorical excess, since I don't believe alligators ever infested Georgetown or anything. I could be wrong about that, though, as I could have sworn I once saw Pogo Possum, Albert, and a few of their friends on the Metro....]

 

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com

 

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