"Is it not time to awaken from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for our political conduct that we, as well as other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?" --Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, No. 6
In the past two months, I have spoken with Obama supporters across the spectrum of gender, race, class, geography and age who supported, worked for and still believe in President Obama. While they applaud his courage in pushing for health care legislation, all are, if not disappointed, puzzled by some of his decisions and choices.
The President of the United States is neither a dictator nor Santa Claus; he cannot dictate what he wants and have Congress automatically fall in line, nor can he open a bag and miraculously grant our wishes. The President is our leader, though, and we count on him to lead and fight for what he believes in.
As Hamilton pointed out, we are not a nation of perfect wisdom and virtue. Our government operates on a system of checks and balances. Even that system, however, does not always work. For example, George W. Bush had eight long years to embroil the United States in two wars and wreck the economy; and Congress--Republicans and Democrats alike with a few exceptions--did nothing to stop him. It will require more than eleven months or even eight years to undo the damage inflicted on the United States by Bush/Cheney.
Americans who voted for Obama to clean up the mess left by Mr. Bush, believed he could work wonders in his first year--and since he has not--are now turning from hope to cynicism. Even his most ardent supporters are now asking themselves whether, instead of following in the footsteps of such transformative Presidents as Lincoln and FDR, President Obama is following Buchanan and Hoover, the timid men who preceded them.
Some of the people I spoke with blame the President's staff, particularly Rahm Emmanuel, for giving him bad advice; some blame the media for their predilection for controversy and their dismal failure to question the absurdities spread by those who would like to see Obama fail; still others believe the President is relying too heavily on the recommendations of his economic and military advisors who are unwilling to think out of the box; and one sixty-two year old woman wondered whether the President she worked so hard to elect is simply another calculating politician who said what he had to say in order to get elected.
The areas of concern to the President's supporters I spoke with are the economy: specifically, his selection of Timothy Geither, former head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, to be his Treasury Secretary; and his selection of advisor Larry Summers, a holdover from the Clinton Administration, who with Robert Rubin shares responsibility for repealing the Glass-Steagall Act.
The fact that irresponsible financial institutions like Goldman Sachs received bailout money--without conditions--but failed to extend loans to needy mid-and small businesses that support jobs, as they were supposed to have done, is particularly disappointing. Geithner might have saved the country from complete financial collapse, but he is also the regulator who for years failed to regulate Wall Street, thereby contributing to its near-collapse.
The perception in Middle America is that by relying on Mr. Geithner, the President is not acting on behalf of Americans who've lost their pensions and savings, their homes and businesses. With so many people suffering, Geithner's argument that, if the so-called wizards of finance were not allowed to keep their obscene bonuses, they would leave their jobs--is lame. Imposing conditions on the bailout money would have called their bluff and, if they threatened to leave--the President and Congress should have let them go. Standing up to Wall Street would have spoken volumes.
The people I spoke with supported the stimulus because they thought it would benefit Main Street by stimulating the economy. They blame Geithner for protecting his peers on Wall Street rather than helping Americans who are victims of their in-your-face excesses. From the perspective of average Americans, the distribution of stimulus money appears to be a variation on the GOP's "trickle-down" economics--taking care of the wealthiest Americans, in the hope that crumbs will trickle down to the middle and lower classes.
FDR understood that putting Americans back to work was an economic--and psychological--necessity. He knew that working--even with meager pay--has a positive psychological effect on human beings. It isn't enough to extend unemployment benefits--Americans want to work! The New Deal didn't end the Depression, but through creative programs like the CCC, WPA, and TVA, Americans were on the move again; they were earning wages, there was activity afoot and with it the sense that all would turn out well. Also, when one program didn't work, Mr. Roosevelt discarded it and tried another--he kept trying.
Job creation--not bailouts for billionaires--will get the country rolling again.
Another major area of concern and dismay are the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Candidate Obama never promised to end the war in Afghanistan. During the primary and general elections, he repeatedly stated that while he would end the war in Iraq, he believed the real war was in Afghanistan and that he would prosecute it.
Now, however, Afghanistan is morphing into a monstrous Vietnam look-alike, where we sacrifice thousands of American lives and vast resources to a losing cause. Our military is already stretched beyond its limits, men and women are being deployed over and over again without regard to their physical and mental health, and we cannot afford the financial cost of the war--one million dollars per soldier.
The Afghan government has proven to be corrupt and unreliable, their election was questionable, and we have no guarantees that their military will be able to assume control after we leave. Americans are losing confidence.
Rather than being remembered for his historic achievements like passing the Voting Rights Act and Medicare, President Lyndon Johnson is remembered more for the disaster that was Vietnam. President Obama's supporters fear he is headed in the same direction as LBJ and that Afghanistan, not health care reform, will be his Waterloo.
Everyone I listened to still believes--or wants to believe--in President Obama, but is concerned that if he doesn't act and invest stimulus money in jobs for middle class Americans (after having saved Wall Street); if health care reform does not include low-cost, government-run insurance and legislation to regulate the insurance industry; and if Americans keep returning from Afghanistan in flag-draped coffins--the change they voted for will be merely a "deceitful dream," as Hamilton wrote. Hope is turning to doubt and cynicism--and it could easily turn to despair.
Neither Lincoln nor FDR resolved the enormous challenges that faced the United States during their first months or even years of their administrations, yet they went on to become two of our greatest Presidents. The whole story of Obama's Presidency has yet to be written.
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