Monday, July 06, 2009

"Barack Obama keeps his cool in hothead Washington"

Andrew Sullivan:
The instinctive conservatism and constitutionalism of Barack Obama were core reasons for his election. He was a liberal in policy but a conservative in temperament: cautious, consensus-seeking, empirical. After the wild swings of the Bush administration, this seemed like balm with an Eisenhower vibe. Obama even started golfing during foreign policy crises.
Decisions were made after deliberation and study, not impetuously. Strategy was stuck to, even at the cost of a few tactical setbacks. There was no big emotional breast-beating on the international stage; all options were kept open — even as we watched the brutal repression in Iran.

The new president also understood the real role of his office — not the decider, but the presider; one branch of three co-equal branches of government, subject to the rule of law and the constitution.

So the president resisted the temptation to jump in and nationalise the banks; he picked Wall Street-friendly Tim Geithner for the Treasury; he postponed any big early withdrawal from Iraq; he added troops in Afghanistan; he gave up his tax hikes because the recession was so steep. While he banned torture, he moved towards careful compromise on rendition and preventive detention and state secrets.

As he had once written when describing his strategy as a black man in a white world: no sudden moves. And we have seen none. Obama likes the system; he just wants to make it work for more people.

Obama is also, at his core, a community organiser. Community organisers do not jump into a situation and start bossing people around. They begin by listening, debating, cajoling, inspiring and delegating. Less deciders than ralliers, community organisers explain the options, inspire self-confidence and try to empower others, not themselves. If you think of Obama even on a global stage, this is his mojo. And those community organisers do not tell you to expect instant results. It takes time when you try to build real change from below. But the change is stronger, deeper and more real when it comes.

The question buzzing around Washington’s chattering classes is the following: is the actual historical moment that Obama inherited — unforeseen in its scope and danger this time last year — the right moment for these instincts? Are his caution and delegation a liability in a period of a dysfunctional Congress, a near-psychotic Republican party and a potentially lethal global depression?

After a period in which the American executive claimed vast powers and institutionalised torture and abuse of suspected terrorists, is it enough simply to forget and forgive the past and try to glue onto the existing system more checks and balances and decency? Is the conservatism we sought, in other words, adequate to the radicalism that may now be required?

And is the president being too deferential to Congress in seizing the reins?

This critique is echoed on both left and right. The right, in its dominant neoconservative vein, is frustrated with his disdain for classic American moralising and sabre-rattling at a moment such as Iran’s stymied green revolution. The left wishes he had been more radical in taking on Wall Street, insisting on a single-payer healthcare reform and a full-bore carbon tax. Harper’s Magazine has even labelled him Barack Hoover Obama: personally brilliant, humane and pragmatic but simply not daring enough for the moment he is facing.

The Obama brigade would counter with some strong arguments. It would point out that he won a huge stimulus package from Congress very swiftly precisely because he did defer to the Hill. It would point to the first real carbon reduction legislation to be passed in the House. It would note the swift rebalancing of America’s alliances and the catalytic effect of the Cairo speech in Iran. It would note that Obama was not so indecisive in a legitimate case of purely executive decision making — as three Somali pirates shot on his orders found out.

It would also rightly argue that alternative methods of dealing with Congress — remember the Clinton White House’s presidential-driven healthcare debacle? — don’t work so well. Better an imperfect Barack victory than another Hillary nosedive. As for foreign policy toughness and clarity, Obama’s insistence that Israel cease and desist its settlement programme on the West Bank is not exactly passive-aggressive. Besides, he always said this would take time.

But what if the economic stimulus was too geared for long-term rather than short-term impact, as Friday’s jobs report — showing a bigger jump in unemployment than expected — suggested. By deciding to adopt George W Bush’s Iraq withdrawal strategy, has Obama wed himself to the fortunes of an occupation he was elected to end? And the attempt to co-opt the moderate wing of the Republican party — which Obama has done among many voters, officials, pundits and governors — nonetheless falters in a Congress where there are no moderate Republicans left.

My own brilliant contribution to this debate is that it’s too soon to tell, but I learnt long ago not to underestimate Obama’s strategic skills and persistence. The drawn-out stimulus spending might actually help to prop up the economy in the coming months — and it’s utopian to believe that any Congress would have borrowed even more money this winter after Bush’s $700 billion banking bailout and the vast projected deficits of the future.

The sheer complexity and volatility of the war on jihadism make instant solutions impossible. In so far as Obama can make a purely executive call — as in the commander he picked for Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal — he has opted for the most imaginative and daring option. He remains highly popular as a person and has imbibed the presidency so well that it’s now hard to conceive of it without him.
Healthcare reform is an immensely delicate task that may well pass this summer or early autumn. Even if the healthcare plan is insufficient and the climate change bill too anaemic, they will both put down infrastructure that can be built on in the years ahead. That’s better than anyone in a very, very long time.

The more you observe, the clearer it is that Obama is working on an eight-year time cycle. He wants deep structural change, not swift superficial grandstanding and conflict. He is taking his time and keeping his cool. The question is whether a volatile electorate in a terrible economic time will be patient enough to wait.

No comments: