There are few politicians who could have inspired the sort of hope that Barack Obama did coming into office, arriving in the wake of a near collapse of the American financial system a year ago. His inaugural address raised the nation's expectations. We hoped, we looked for change, we thought perhaps we'd crossed some significant barriers in the country's history. Mostly, we looked for leadership in a time of great anxiety.
Then came a search for consensus. For reasons that have more to do with Obama's nature than with empirical evidence, the new President looked for bipartisanship in addressing the nation's dire financial straits. He took a massive stimulus bill that most economists said would be the minimum necessary to get the country moving again and split it down the middle. Obama designated slightly more than half towards job creation, largely in infrastructure; the rest he saved for tax cuts, hoping the huge giveaway might bring Republicans and conservatives into the big stimulus tent he was creating. It didn't.
Instead, Republicans voted, to the last, against the stimulus plan and lambasted the President as a socialist. They sat on their hands and dared President Obama to pass his recovery plans without them. So, without pulling the $400 billion tax cut, he did. Without offering any plan of their own, the Republican Party had succeeded in paring off almost half of the stimulus funding towards tax relief. Obama had reached across the aisle and had been rejected, even while still siphoning off a huge percentage of the job creating effect of the stimulus bill.
Then, Obama continued to treat the biggest banks with the same tenderness that the Bush Administration had already lavished upon them. His economic team made them all healthy again, with more hundreds of billions of the TARP dollars they'd been loaned at the end of 2008 now flowing into 2009— and put few restraints on how they'd spend it. They bought other banks and invested in their futures, not ours, keeping credit tight on Main Street. The boys at Treasury and on the White House economic team made sure that however unhealthy the banks' bottom lines were, the biggest of them would have the capital to do their profitable trades, at our expense.
Finally, Obama decided that, legislatively, it was most important to fulfill his campaign pledge to reform the healthcare system during his first year in office. It was more visible as a priority than fighting joblessness or enacting financial reform, even in the aftermath of the meltdown. But again, Obama thought it best to ask for a bipartisan effort to save the nation from ruin. Republicans laughed, but waited for the other shoe to drop.
All through the summer, the Republicans stalled, asking whether one compromise or another might create the critical mass. They asked to be a part of a process that might allow them to join in a circle of delight with Democrats and the President; they might, if asked nicely enough, hand the President a huge legislative victory. In the end, none of the potential compromises offered in committee made it possible to attract one Senatorial Republican. But the lengthy process had the desired effect for Republicans. The stalling allowed a complete mobilization of the insurance industry's billions and the organization of a lunatic fringe of the right— the Tea Partiers. They took to soapboxes in every town hall across the country during the summer congressional recess and shouted down Congresspeople everywhere, claiming that the nation was in the grasp of socialists and traitors. They denounced healthcare reform as the crown jewel of the socialist coup in progress.
A shaken legislature returned to deliberate through the fall on healthcare. The leadership, left without Presidential guidance to resist it, compromised further, hoping to prevent the loss of any conservative Democratic votes in the Senate. Democratic Blue Dogs were now more fearful than ever of right wing backlash, so they demanded a centrist path. Poof, away went the public option, forget about an expansion of Medicare. After almost a year, healthcare reform was stripped down to basic changes that would enlarge the number of Americans covered by private insurance, but would not threaten the private sector with competition. It passed the Senate finally, with only some differences left to be ironed out between the House version and the watered-down bill that emerged from the upper chamber.
While the legislative sausage was being made, our President thought long and hard about the war in Afghanistan, especially after the American-backed leader there tried and ultimately succeeded in stealing his country's election. Obama wondered whether his promise to escalate the conflict was still possible, whether there was a way to win a war without a legitimate government to support. Maybe they should just buy time there, hoping something might change before the Taliban overran the corrupt Karzai regime. Ultimately, his advisors split, the President was outflanked by a General who thought it best to follow the path of Douglas MacArthur, a military predecessor who had lobbied for escalation of the Korean war over the authority of President Truman. Unlike MacArthur, who was relieved of command by Truman, General Stanley McCrystal was given an additional 30,000 troops by President Obama with which to turn around years of stagnation in Afghanistan. Our brave soldiers would somehow make it work with just this small reinforcement. No one would call President Obama soft on terror, would they?
But then came along a wayward son of a Nigerian banker with explosives in his underpants on Christmas Day, attempting to explode them, along with a jetliner full of passengers over the city of Detroit. The President attempted to keep Americans calm, even as right wing talk show hosts screamed their invective over the holiday airwaves. He was still a traitor, this President. Never would the last Commander-in-Chief have let such a thing almost occur, would he? , President Bush, after all, had us all taking off our shoes at the airport after the infamous shoe-bomber's soles failed to ignite. The talk show hosts just knew that President Obama didn't have the guts to make us take off our underpants on line, did he?
No, he didn't. But President Obama did have the intestinal fortitude to undergo a painful and public self-examination over flaws in intelligence getting to the right airports at the right times. He did call his cabinet together to flail themselves over these mistakes. The President would go on television and take responsibility for not doing a good enough job. In the future, he'd make sure we were safer from crazy people who had told their families they hated America and then left home, bound for our shores. We'd certainly be getting more information on this soon.
Then there was a little special election in Massachusetts. The most liberal state in the nation would soon anoint a successor to the late Teddy Kennedy, someone who would cast the final vote on healthcare reform: Teddy's work of a lifetime. The only problem was that the woman who had been nominated by local Democrats to inherit the mantle had no interest in actually campaigning. She thought it best to take a little break from the voters during a six-week general election, making publicly known her reluctance to stand out in the cold near Fenway Park, shaking the hands of losers who were on their way to jobs they hadn't yet lost.
Those Massachusetts losers, known to the rest of us as voters, turned on Democratic candidate Martha Coakley. Many angry liberals stayed home, wishing for a candidate with some zeal for their issues and their support and the rest voted for a little-known Republican, a former Cosmopolitan Magazine nude model-turned state senator. The Republican won, offered his children up for dates on national television during his acceptance speech, then took a plane to Washington to vote against healthcare reform, which he had voted for when Massachusetts passed its own plan a few years ago. Newly elected Senator Scott Brown was now a new hero of the right wing.
No matter how bizarre, the events in Massachusetts apparently sent the country and the President a clear message. There would be no more healthcare reform without Republican support. There would be no more spending to ease the pain of the unemployed, unless it could be done in a bipartisan way and be done before next year. President Obama would then freeze spending, except for more wars, for three years. Damn the unemployed. Damn the recovery, we'd close the deficit. Meanwhile, he would fight for us. Fight, fight, fight. Oh, yes, and he would reappoint the Fed Chairman to do more of the same.
Let's ring down the curtain on year one of the Obama Presidency. Year two should be even more interesting.