Barack Obama: a six-month assessment

Godfrey Hodgson
10 July 2009

Barack Obama is a nice man, with rare charm and humour. Anyone who doubts that should see the picture of him reading to a White House children's party from Where the Wild Things Are. He is a shrewd and daring politician. If he wasn't, he wouldn't now be in the White House. He is a thrilling speaker. Listen to any of his set-piece speeches, from Philadelphia to Denver, and from Berlin to Cairo.

Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama's presidency:

Simon Maxwell, "Global development: Barack Obama's agenda" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (19-23 January 2009) - reflections from thirty-seven of our worldwide authors

Simon Critchley, "Barack Obama and the American void" (22 January 2009)

Ruth Rosen, "American women's stimulus: voice, agency, change" (18 February 2009)

Jim Gabour, "The redemption game" (20 February 2009)

Gideon Levy, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend" (25 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

Nader Hashemi, "What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt" (3 June 2009)

Plus - regular comment on openUSA

Tens of millions of Americans desperately want him to succeed. So do perhaps even more people elsewhere.

But is he an effective president? Will he be a successful one? We are coming up to the time when that will be decided.

In a few days, he will have been president for six months. That's not a long time, just the beginning of what should be a long march of eight years. But this is the moment when both his friends and his enemies will look at what he has done and what he has tried to do, what he has begun badly, and what he has begun well.

The political context

The president is reported by a leading columnist to have said something typically intelligent, and characteristically both cautious and enigmatic: that he would rather have seventy votes in the Senate for 85% of what he wanted than fifty-two voters for 100% (see David Broder, The ‘Rock' in Health Reform, Washington Post, 11 June 2009).

What Obama  probably meant is that he wants to pass legislation that will have enough cross-party backing to be secure against future reversal. That is all of a piece with Obama's general bipartisan approach. It is arguable, though, that it sounds wiser than it is. Bill Clinton's administration, after all, fell short of expectations, its own and others', at least in part because of an excessive readiness to "triangulate", a polite way of saying compromise.

There is so much emphasis on the personality of the president in the way American politics is perceived, and not least with this president, that it is easy to forget that Obama's political reputation, and therefore his effectiveness, is far more in the hands of Congress than might appear. Obama is a Democrat. The Democrats have a majority in both houses of Congress. So why can't he get whatever he wants?

That is not how it works. A president brings a stock of political capital with him to the White House. Then he trades with it. If he is skilful, and lucky, he conserves his original capital, and even adds to it. Especially, if he trades with the Congress.

Since the comedian Al Franken was finally declared the winner of a super-close election in Minnesota, the Democrats now (in theory) have sixty votes out of 100 in the Senate. That should, (in theory) gives the president sixty votes there, and sixty votes are needed for closure, to end debate and pass a bill.

In practice, the Democrats will find it hard to clear that threshold. They will pick up some liberal Republican votes on major issues like healthcare reform and climate change. But Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts is desperately ill with a brain tumour. Robert Byrd of West Virginia is not well, at 91. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is a Republican in all but name.

There are other independent-minded, usually conservative Democrats like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. She voted for the oil interests on drilling on wildlife reserves in Alaska. On the other wing of the party there are more progressive senators who might balk if they felt the president and the Democratic leadership in the Senate were too timid and vote against what they saw as unnecessary compromises.

Harry Reid, the Nevada senator who is the Democratic majority leader, understands this very well. "We have sixty votes on paper", said Senator Reid after he learned that Franken had finally made it. "But we cannot bulldoze anybody; it doesn't work that way. My caucus doesn't allow it. And we have a very diverse group of senators philosophically."

Exactly. The other thing that cannot be forgotten is that senators, and congressmen, are confronted with a baffling array of votes on every subject you can think of, studded with "earmarks" and sundry special favours, for their own constituents and for the constituents of other legislators who might be available to vote for a pet project of their own. They, too, are traders.

If we look just at domestic issues - and I propose to look at the president's international record and prospects in a second article next week - there are three key areas on which he can and must be judged. They are the economic crisis, healthcare and climate change.

The numbers game

The first key area is Barack Obama's handling of the financial and economic crisis he had to deal with even before he was inaugurated. Immediate disaster was prevented. But great damage was done, and the Obama administration cannot truly claim either to have prevented a recurrence of the crisis, or to have healed the harm.

In spite of the administration's huge expenditure and guarantees and all its efforts to reassure the public, the banks' books are still stuffed with toxic assets. The stock-market has recovered, then stuck on a plateau. The bankers are already poking their heads above the trenches. They are expecting big bonuses again. But great psychological and political harm has been done by the contrast between the avidity with which the administration bailed out the banks, and its comparative reluctance to help workers who have lost their jobs in the automobile and other manufacturing industries.

President Obama understandably sought to reassure sceptics that he was not prejudiced against Wall Street. Unfortunately he did this by handing over the financial side of his new administration to be run by people like his treasury secretary Tim Geithner, who was a protégé of the very Wall Street titans who had caused the trouble in the first place.

It is too early to say whether the president will get away with this mistake, either economically or politically. But it is already time to look at the prospects for his own chosen domestic priorities.

There are many, many tasks he cannot shirk. But there are two other pre-eminent issues which as a candidate Obama awarded high priority in his campaign - reform of America's failing but passionately controversial healthcare system, and climate change. He cannot run away from them, and to do him justice he shows no sign of wanting to do so. He will however be judged by how he frames what he asks from Congress, and how he responds to what Congress hands him on these questions.

In each case, the president's 100% option is not known for sure. But in each case the 85% he seems to have in mind would simultaneously infuriate the right and leave a significant minority on the left deeply disappointed.

The climate calendar

The question of climate change is already at the heart of the legislative process. On 26 June the House of Representatives passed by a vote of 219-212 a bill whose essence was the idea of "cap and trade". Corporations, that is, would be handed permits to pollute, which they could trade; polluters who would not or could not meet a given standard would be able to buy the right to break that standard from those who did not need or want to do so.

There are a number of worrying, some would say disgraceful, aspects of this result. In principle, for one thing, this is not to control pollution, but to allow it. The standard, for another, is low. The House called only for a reduction of 17% from 2005 levels, with a safely future aspiration of an 83% reduction by 2050. By that time most members of the present House will be dead. Most environmental experts think the bill is far too little, far too late.

Second, the Republican opposition still seems not to have accepted the case for doing something about the danger of climate change. Henry Waxman, the bill's Democratic sponsor, said there was now a consensus that the scientists were right about climate change. If so, the consensus has not reached the other side of the aisle.

John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House, called the proposal "the biggest job-killing bill" in history. One of his colleagues said industry would be driven back to 1910 levels of pollution, as though 1910 was a vintage year for the air over Pittsburgh.

Worse, no fewer than forty-four Democrats voted with these Republican dinosaurs against the bill, which passed only with the help of less Jurassic Republicans. Now the Senate will come up with its own bill. The Obama administration will do what it can to pressure the Senate to improve on the House bill.

The good news here is that the Obama administration has tackled what many believe to be the most urgent issue before all of us. The bad news is that it has met more resistance than seemed believable.

The question of care

On healthcare, the prospect is even less clear. The system is in chaos. Americans spend, as a proportion of national income, roughly twice as much as people in other developed countries on healthcare, but by such measures as life-expectancy and child mortality they are not especially healthy. At its high-technology best American medicine can be superb: the problem is access. Almost 50 million Americans, one in every six, have no health insurance. Many more have insurance that will not protect them against all of the risks they are likely to encounter (see James A Morone & Lawrence R Jacobs, "American sickness: diagnosis and cure", 16 October 2007).

Two trends make it likely that the situation will get worse not better. First, for the well insured, the quality of care does get better and better, and more and more expensive. So already "managed care" by insurers and "health maintenance organisations" has steadily chipped away at the benefits available under policies, in terms of the quantity and expense of medication allowed and for example of the length of hospital stays.

Second, many Americans have health insurance as part of their contract of employment. This is particularly true of trade-union members (a dwindling band) but also of, for example, government employees, military personnel and employees of universities. But now unemployment is rising. Many of these people will lose medical coverage for themselves and for their families if they lose their jobs.

Experts, therefore, believe that the only cure adequate to the scale of the problem is to go to a "single-payer" system like those in Britain or northern Europe. For fifty years and more, however, Americans have been told that anything of the kind, whether a nationalised healthcare system or a universal insurance system, is "socialised medicine", to be shunned at all costs.

In 1993, President Clinton proposed a fairly cautious reform, strongly advocated by his wife, now President Obama's secretary of state. It was laughed out of existence by the notorious "Harry and Louise" TV advertising campaign. A worried couple talk health insurance over in the kitchen. They don't like the Clinton plan. "They chose we lose!"

Now once again an army of lobbyists is descending on Washington like the locusts that plague the city every seventeen years. Already ads are running on TV retailing horror stories of the failings of Britain's National Health Service. They are not, you can be sure, scrupulously careful to show the best of the NHS. 350 former members of congressional staffs, officered by defeated Republican congressmen, have been hired, money no object, to make congressmen shiver with fear.

In the face of this army - recruited by insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospital companies and the rest of an industry whose turnover exceeds 15% of the national income - no wonder if President Obama is retreating from anything that could be represented as "socialised medicine".

Instead, it is thought that he will leave healthcare in the hands of the commercial insurance industry, but make insurance mandatory and perhaps set up a government health-insurance plan to compete with the existing companies. In principle, that would keep the "managed care" brigade honest. In practice, it would need massive government investment and might not succeed.

The interim calculus

Already, therefore, on all three of the most important issues he must confront, Obama seems to have rejected the more daring solutions and settled for, well, 85% of what he might want.

Perhaps that is unfair. Perhaps he will stand in front of the nation like a great teacher, and persuade the people that this is the moment to throw caution to the winds.

Perhaps he will insist on strict limits to pollution, not create a market for it. Perhaps he will bring the American healthcare system into line with other developed countries that, by statistical measures, do substantially better in providing good health care for a fraction of what Americans pay. Perhaps he will stop the same old Wall Street crowd from starting back on the old road of perverse motives, bonuses for reckless leverage, toxic greed sold as "innovation".

That would be nice. But then again, he may be right. His calculus may be the only realistic one. Perhaps the American political system really has been so captured by the special interests of private healthcare, corporate polluters, reckless bankers, that there is nothing even the most idealistic and gifted president we have seen for a generation can do about it.

Let us hope not.

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent

Godfrey Hodgson's most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009)

His earlier books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)

"Change?" (2 December 2008)

"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)

"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)

"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)

"Barack Obama: end of the beginning" (30 March 2009)

"After the G20: America, Obama, the world" (6 April 2009)

"Barack Obama's hundred days" (29 April 2009)

"The Cairo speech: letter to America" (8 June 2009)


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