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

The Audacity to Change

What a long, strange year it's been since Election Night 2008. Whatever this administration has represented so far, it has not yet delivered change we can believe in.

We need a radical break with Wall Street, and we got the politics of prop up and bail out -- with the result that most Americans don't think the program is benefiting them.

We needed President Obama to focus like a laser on economic recovery, and instead we got the distraction of a barely-worth-it health insurance patch. We needed the president to go to the country and win support for fundamental health reform, and instead we got Rahm Emanuel's deal with the drug and insurance industries that won House support by the barest of majorities and managed to frighten senior citizens -- the most satisfied customers of our one public option -- Medicare.

We needed a recovery program that held down unemployment, and instead we got a stimulus that even the Obama team considered too small at the time of its enactment, according to the reporting of The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza.

And now we are on the verge of Barack Obama's very own Vietnam, in an escalating Afghanistan entanglement.

The 2009 off-year elections were a repudiation of incumbents -- only now the incumbent party is the Democrats. Popular cynicism about government representing the interests of insiders and economic elites is even more extreme now than in November 2008, when the desire for drastic change thrust Obama into the White House. If present economic trends continue, the Democrats could lose control of the House in 2010, setting up a repeat of Bill Clinton's period of "triangulation," but with an even more lunatic-fringe obstructionist Republican Party.

Yet, as a friend points out, if you had evaluated John F. Kennedy in November 1961, a year after his election, you would have adjudged him pretty much a failure. His administration began with the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. Kennedy did not have firm control over his nominally Democratic majority in Congress (despite almost identical partisan margins as Obama's). He did not make an effective impression on Nikita Khrushchev at their Vienna Summit, and the Soviet Cuban Missile offensive followed. But by late 1963, Kennedy had begun the turn to détente, and he managed to lay the groundwork for the civil rights and antipoverty revolution that his successor, Lyndon Johnson, delivered.

So, can Barack Obama recoup, and can he recoup in time?

If you look at what most historians regard as Kennedy's finest hour, his leadership of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, you appreciate that Kennedy above all had to face down most of his own advisers. Most wanted a military confrontation with the Soviets. But the brothers Kennedy found an alternative to either war or surrender.

Obama, like Kennedy, needs to overcome the dubious counsel of his own advisers, this time both economic and military. With unemployment still rising to levels the administration did not anticipate, Messrs Summers and company are still opposed to a second stimulus, and the White House is mainly concerned with appeasing the budget hawks.

The president needs to listen to other voices, including his own. He needs to go to the country with a much stronger jobs program, to show people that his administration is on their side. He could take the TARP money that has been repaid by the banks and put it directly into mortgage foreclosure relief, as well as insisting that sub-prime bondholders take the same kind of write-down as auto-company bondholders. He could ask Congress for additional fiscal relief to the states, whose budget collapse is still worsening, undercutting the existing federal stimulus. Deficit reduction can come once the economy is back on track.

On Afghanistan, instead of the seemingly inevitable troop escalation that will please nobody and fail to alter events, he could pursue a policy of pressing the Karzai regime harder for reforms while helping Karzai keep the Taliban from taking control of Kabul and northern provinces -- and using a small troop presence of 20,000 or less to keep al Qaeda off balance. He could firmly reject getting dragged piecemeal into a war that will only be a quagmire. The Republicans would rattle sabers but most Americans would cheer.

Some of what Obama has faced was beyond his control. Nobody said digging out from the financial catastrophe would be easy, or that fashioning a viable policy for Afghanistan would be a cakewalk. Taming a Democratic majority that included Blue Dogs obsessed with fiscal balance and New Dems in bed with Wall Street was not exactly child's play either. But events did not require him to appoint an economic team headed by Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, or to reappoint Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Fed, or Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, or to favor the escalation faction in his Afghanistan advisers. Events did not require him to play an inside game with powerful industries instead of taking a case for radical reform directly to the people and offering a Rooseveltian program too popular to oppose.

From the day he declared for the presidency -- indeed, from the day he declared for the Illinois state senate -- Obama has displayed an audacity, a decency, an idealism, and an eloquence that gave us hope that here was a great president. But as chief executive, he has seemed buttoned up and damped down while a great crisis threatens to envelop the country and his presidency. He had the audacity to run and to win. Now, will he have the audacity to learn and to lead?

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. He is author of Obama"s Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency.