A Hard Look
I know that much of this will sound strange coming from me, but almost five years into the Obama presidency I find myself focusing on results and disdainful of the hype. And on the political strategy and government accountability fronts, the Obama team continues to fail.
With Republicans giving notice that they will use the health care law, gun safety efforts, and immigration reform to drive their rabid base to the polls next year against Democrats in a typically low-turnout midterm, Team Obama will ask nervous incumbent Democrats to defend a health care law that the White House has failed to sell all these years, that doesn't really cut costs, and which doesn't even start largely until the election season. Worse, Obama intends to build his legacy upon getting gun safety, immigration reform, and a grand budget deal done before the 2016 election season starts, yet his timeline for action asks vulnerable Democrats to cast risky votes leading up to the 2014 midterms, and to do so on two issues (gun safety and immigration reform) that rank low amongst the public's priorities right now.
This seems a replay of 2010, when the White House threw away vote-winning issues like jobs and financial reform and instead asked Democrats to walk the plank and vote for Obama's legacy project of health care reform. And once again, what do the polls tell us are the vote-winning issues that Democrats should be focusing on right now to please 2014 voters? That's right: jobs and the economy.
I am not suggesting that Obama walk away from gun safety and immigration reform. Instead, Obama should let the Senate push their bipartisan package and watch the right wing fringe destroy it in both the Senate and the House, and then let Democrats use that against the GOP in key races next year rather than make that and gun safety a national Democratic priority. Sorry for being politically crass here, but these two issues should be relegated to a renewed push in 2015 with a different Congress and as base drivers of their own with Democrats for 2016. With the House GOP leadership now sensing their own 2014 vulnerability from any further talk about budget reductions and cuts to popular entitlements, and with their pivot to elite-pleasing talk about tax reform, polls show that Democrats can capitalize by seizing the two most popular issues (jobs and the economy) and pointing out that the GOP has no answers or interest in these issues.
While we talk about Obama's legacy, can we also talk briefly about actual accomplishments and missed opportunities? The list of Obama disappointments runs long, including the failures to match his campaign rhetoric on a variety of issues including civil liberties, financial reform and accountability, and of course jobs and the economy. But apart from the gap between rhetoric and reality, what about the actual accomplishments on the things he takes credit for? And I'm not just talking about Obamacare, which hindsight may show came at an unnecessary political cost for something that was unnecessarily complex and too industry-friendly, and remains terribly undersold to the American people. Teddy Kennedy was right years ago that Medicare-for-all was the way to go.
But what about looking at the things Obama takes credit for in the context of missed opportunities? For instance, while Obama and Leon Panetta focused on getting Osama Bin Laden, why did Panetta's CIA totally miss the Arab Spring? How did Team Obama not pivot early and develop a plan for dealing with these events from a security-first perspective?
When he moved over to the Pentagon, why did Panetta and Obama focus on the base-pleasing and media-friendly issues of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and getting more women into combat roles, and yet ignore dealing with the increasing disgrace of sexual assaults in the military? Why hasn't the Veterans' Administration dealt effectively with the unjustifiable backlog of benefit applications from our returning troops? Does it really take five years to tackle?
Lastly, while Hillary Clinton was logging all those miles talking up women's rights and getting the rock star treatment around the world, did the United States actually push the ball forward in any area of the world? Yes, Obama took credit for achieving the low-hanging fruit campaign promise of getting us out of Iraq, but he then pivoted to his own "surge" in Afghanistan at the expense of State's hopeful political reconciliation efforts within the country, that were scuttled when David Petraeus and yes, Leon Panetta pushed the military options instead.
Aside from letting our hackers undermine the Iranian nuclear program, did we make any real progress on Iran in these last 4+ years? Have we expended any real energy in the Middle East in that time? Why was Africa not on the radar screen until the Arab Spring surprise? Have we seen any real intelligence anywhere except in getting Bin Laden?
Was the real plan for the first term to get Hillary out of the country with no portfolio or real power to do anything of consequence? Did she have the ability to override the CIA or the Pentagon when necessary? Don't get me wrong: Hillary is accountable for State and its operations like embassy security. But foreign policy is a reflection of the president. What can Team Obama really point to overseas besides getting out of Iraq and nailing Bin Laden, and is this enough if it came at a cost of much more?
It isn't enough to say that you aren't the Bush administration, because that bar was pretty low to begin with.