The subtitle of this post is borrowed from a term that I have most often seen used by one of my favorite political bloggers, Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan often credits Obama for not being farsighted like so many of his opponents and being willing to take a few punches in the short-term for long-term wins. Sullivan seems on point with this as Obama has repeatedly “risen from the mat” to claim huge legislative and political victories.
But I want to talk about why Obama has been fairly cautious in his approach thus far in his presidency. It would not be unreasonable to argue that Obama has not been cautious at all, what with passing a stimulus bill and comprehensive health care reform, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and “shaking down” BP over the spill. But if you look closely at those bills, his foreign policy, and how his administration has handled detainee issues, you see a much more moderate and careful approach (and let me also add that the posts in this series deal with the more major policies of the Obama presidency and not the things he has done that garner little attention but that have been positive steps, such as giving money to states to assist with Medicaid payments to the poor). And I think that was intentional, for the reasons outlined below.
Think back to 2008. We had long grown tired of Bush/Cheney, with Bush’s approval rating somewhere in the 20s, and an epic campaign was reaching its climax. Two very significant things happened that year: Fox News ratcheted up its attacks on Obama, bringing them to the absurd even by their standards, and McCain picked Sarah Palin to be his VP. The combination of the two had to be a wake-up call to Obama about how cynical our politics had become, and yet, he still spoke about eschewing the politics of old and creating a more bipartisan atmosphere in Washington.
Obama wins the election and inherits a mess of a political, economic and foreign policy scene. To combat this, as well as the political and media cynicism, he immediately reaches out to McCain in the hopes of getting Republicans on board to help rebuild the nation and its image. Here is a bit from a joint statement the two released following their meeting, which took place days after the election:
At this defining moment in history, we believe that Americans of all parties want and need their leaders to come together and change the bad habits of Washington so that we can solve the common and urgent challenges of our time
We hope to work together in the days and months ahead on critical challenges like solving our financial crisis, creating a new energy economy, and protecting our nation’s security.
Typical political speak to be sure, but it only reinforces the cynicism I have mentioned. Because not soon after Obama took office two months later, it was clear that one man saw that meeting and its outcome as sincere and the other did not, or at least saw things differently by January of 2009. I have no doubts that McCain was terribly bitter about losing the election, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he was sincere about helping Obama at that time. But in the two months leading up to the inauguration, the Republican party concluded that the best way for them to move forward, politically, was to oppose Obama at all costs, and they convinced McCain to go along with them.
So it is January of 2009, Obama is now the president and he has the unenviable task of dealing with the wreckage left behind by the Bush/Cheney national disaster. Call it naivety, call it stubborness, or political posturing, but Obama did reach out to the Republicans in the week following his inaguration to discuss the stimulus package, prompting this response from John Boehner: “The president is sincere in wanting to work with us, wanting to here [sic] our ideas and find some common ground.”
Obama and the Republicans knew a stimulus would be necessary to combat the recession, but the Republicans wanted nothing but tax cuts and some extensions of unemployment benefits, while Obama and the democrats wanted to include work programs along with tax cuts and unemployment benefits. And already, the Obama as big government spender meme was being rolled out by Fox News, aka, the Republican propaganda machine. In the end, a watered down stimulus bill was passed that included cuts to things like school nutrition, as well as generous tax cuts, at a lower price-tag than hoped for, and was done with no Republican support in the house and only 3 votes in the Senate (one of whom was Arlen Specter, who would later switch parties).
Now, I have no problem with politicians being criticized on substantive policy grounds. But that was not happening too much during this time in the MSM, particularly with Fox News, and it still not happening today. Using Fox as an example (I know, too easy), they were enabling peoples’ fears about Obama being a Muslim-terrorist, or a Socialist, or a Kenyan, which was and is not constructive journalism. Aside from being moronically false claims, that type of reporting misses the point and gets people focused on peripheral matters and not the substance of the issues. Sadly, this kind of journalism works and it makes the President’s job harder (Maybe that is a good thing, a sort of “checks and balances” with the media and populace holding the reigns?).
I am not saying that people are policy wonks and want to hear that kind of stuff, but it is a real shame that news organizations cannot find ways to both call out politicians for their double-speak, and figure out a way to lay out the most important aspects of new and important laws in a way the public can understand them.
I mention all this to say that while people were distracted by ridiculous claims about Obama, they failed to notice the lack of Republican support for a stimulus bill aimed at helping middle class and working Americans, like those who might watch Fox News for example. And many, if not most, Obama supporters failed to notice the bill was deficient in various aspects.
And on the same day Obama signed the stimulus bill into law, the White House announced they would be sending 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. A rather obvious clue that Obama intended to escalate the conflict in that country.
(Stay tuned for Part II in this series of posts.)