The break from political writing that I took to do a play was helped in no small part by the stagnant realities of national politics. A month of generally keeping up with the news made clear to me, anyway, that nothing really has been changing, or making much progress.
Yet, the constant drip of stories and polls suggests considerable dissatisfaction with how things are, especialy politically. There's a lot of theorizing about why this is so, much of it centered on dissatisfaction with the President, or his Administration, or policies they've attempted or achieved.
As someone who's been sitting on the sidelines watching, I tend to share the general dissatisfaction... and the vagueness which surrounds it. Something's wrong... but just what it might be isn't exactly clear.
I've asked friends and listened to starngers, and what I've come down to is that much of the "dissatisfaction with Obama" isn't really about him or his Presidency so much as the general state of affairs (especially the economy) in the country and a question of leadership which is larger than Obama himself. And with that, I think, is also the continuing struggle to better define the politics of both left and right as demographics shift and parties are redefined.
And none of that, really, can be resolved anytime soon.
Consider the laundry list of issues which swirl around just now:
- Health care "reforms" continue to burble along as a source of dissatisfaction, especially since the court case of states continues to move forward to invalidate the reforms on constitutional grounds, and as Missouri voters - mostly conservative primary voters - voted for a measure defying the insurance mandate. I've said my peace about why opposition to the mandate strikes me as a nonstarter, but the Missouri vote belied another absurdity: many of those voting against a mandate are, in fact, insured, and thus unaffected in any real way by a mandate. The vote tends to underscore the lack of understanding of the overall healthcare crisis, which remains a huge roadblock to the far more necessary reforms almost everyone considersessential. And the real stumbling block to seeing the new law take effect (remember, almost nothing has, and won't for a number of years, including the mandate) continues to be the looming budget crisis Congress set up by not fundamentally reducing Medicare's costs and greatly expanding coverage under Medicaid in the out years. Thei fall's budget - and surely next year's - will be a big mess because of those realities, and the real pain hasn't even begun to be raised or addressed.
- Immigration continues to swirl as a controversy, fueled by Arizona's new law... but blaming Obama, as many do, seems pointless. The lack of will to address reforms is in Congress, across parties, and reflects a national paralysis on the issue. Arizona simply conitnues to drive the immigration debate as an issue of sothern border enforcement over the far more necessary and basic reforms needed to immigration process overall, which would end the horrendous limbos and capricious nature of attempting to pursue citizenship in the US. Without basic reform of USCIS there is no way to deal with the millions of people who lack a "legal" immigration status, and set some common sense rules around who can apply and how.. Border security issues, while important, are secondary to these reforms. And the general prejudice expressed by much of the right about Hispanic, mainly Mexican, immigration, is a long term disaster for the Republicans.
- The Gulf Oil Spill(s) has revived concerns about environmental policy and drilling, but Congress can't find agreement on ways to change policy. Residual anger at the Obama Administration's response to the spill seems simply churlish, at this point - the spill was contained at the source well ahead of early expectations, the failures that ked to the spill were clearly done by BP and other companies under a failure of regulatory supervvision extending back through several Adminitrations. And the reality is that without any realistic reduction of consumption, the need for oil will trump virtually any other concern.
Many progressives have taken to lumping these complaints along with some others - economic policy concerns, the continuing issues around the war in Afghanistan, mainly - into an indictment of the Obama Administration as not being a "progressive Presidency" which was either promised, or expected, depending on how one approached the 2008 elections (and setting aside that wide swath of lefties who continue to prefer the theoretical Presidency of Hillary Clinton to the actual Obama one). The "progressive Presidency" idea is itself a unicorn that underlines that vague, ill-defined notions of dissatisfaction with the Obama Presidency that drive all these discussions. Presumably - since none of the usual suspects can seem to be bothered to spell it out - a "progressive Presidency" refers to a President who take more liberal political stances than the current President, and does not give up those principles when negotiating legislative compromises. Of course, such a person doesn't really exist, and the modern Presidency probably doesn't allow for the kind of rigidity many of these progressives expect (nor, really, does such a notion really define, say, President Franklin Roosevelt and his accomplishments during the Depression, even).
But the more pointed failure here is in defining a concept of "progressive issues" that would outline the shape of such a Presidency. The incoherence around environmental policy alone gives a good indication of what's not happening here; but you could point to the similarly rambling discussion that unfolds after liberals all agree that SB1070 in Arizona is terrible. Yes... and then what?
In all the complaining, the one constant of considering Obama disappointing seems terribly misplaced; it's both expecting too much of his Presidency to expect him to be the sole repository of policy and plans on every issue confronting us, and settling for too little when this Congress passes the bare minimum of action on a given topic (from the muddle of health care reform to the limited elements of Financial Regulatory reform, and on and on). That Obama's leadership seems to amount to little more than mass placating of disparate liberal demands isn't, in itself, the worst thing in politics just now. It's that placating alone is no answer.
I've maintained that Obama doesn't disappoint me tremendously, mostly because I didn't expect miracles to begin with; yet he does seem, even in modest expectations, to achieve less than he ought to be capable of. We need more, and we do have reasonable requests to expect better. But the failures in American political life are bigger than one man's fizzling Presidency. Enough with the whining and the wishing. Get on with actually doing something.