Change Watch: Whaddaya Mean Obama Hasn't Done Anything?

As one quick to point to the gap between Barack Obama's rhetoric and his actions as chief executive (insert the words "Change Watch" in the search box at left for examples), I read with interest John H. Richardson's defense of the president in the November issue of Esquire.  The current conventional wisdom about President Obama, he thinks, was captured by a headline on the recent one-year-anniversary cover of Newsweek: YES HE CAN (BUT HE SURE HASN'T YET). ** Or, as Saturday Night Live had it a few weeks ago, Obama's two biggest accomplishments thus far are "Jack and Squat."

Richardson argues that the prevailing sentiment that Obama hasn't accomplished anything may be the only example of real bipartisanship in America, ignoring that the right is convinced he has spent the last nine months installing an authoritarian communist regime rapidly stripping us of all we hold dear as a free people and the left is afraid he is bent on transferring national wealth and political power to the corporate elite. If the opinion that Obama has done nothing is bipartisan it is so only inside the Beltway and in the corporate media. With varying degrees of accuracy, voters on the right and left are afraid he's done too much.

Richardson's summation of the conventional rap against Obama could have appeared on Impractical Proposals: Obama hasn't exited Iraq, hasn't closed Guantánamo, is getting mired in Afghanistan, hasn't passed health-care reform,  hasn't put people back to work. His obsession with bipartisanship is a sick joke.

"What a failure! What a splash of cold water in the face of all our bold hopes!"

(If it were really on IP, though, the bill of complaints would probably include references to the bailout, Timothy Geithner, too big too fail, executive compensation and bonuses, foxes managing chicken coops, the PATRIOT Act, renditions, habeas corpus, warrentless wiretaps, grotesquely large military appropriations, Pakistan, executive orders, signing statements, the media shield law ... but okay, fair enough).

Richardson thinks the conventional wisdom is wrong --  the word he actually uses is "insane." He asks that we "consider the record":
A week before he was sworn in, Obama jammed part two of the bank bailout down the throat of his own party — a $350 billion accomplishment.
Two days after he was sworn in, Obama banned the use of "harsh interrogation" and ordered the closing of Guantánamo.
A day later, Obama reversed George W. Bush's funding cutoff to overseas family planning organizations — saving millions of lives with the stroke of a pen.
Three days after that, Obama gave a green light to the California car-emissions standards that Bush had been blocking for six years — an important step on the road to cleaner air and a cooler planet.
Two weeks after that, Obama signed the stimulus bill — a $787 billion accomplishment.
Ten days after that, Obama formally announced America's withdrawal from Iraq.
A week later — we're in early March now — Obama erased Bush's decision to restrict federal funding for stem-cell research.
In April and June, Obama forced Chrysler and GM into bankruptcy.
In June, Obama reset the tone of our relations with the entire Arab world with a single speech...
Also in June, Obama unveiled the "Cash for Clunkers" program, a "socialist" giveaway that reanimated the corpse of our car industry — leading, for example, to the billion-dollar profit that Ford announced on Monday.
I'm not going to contest each of these assertions, except to say that they are a pretty mixed bag. If you think that the economic meltdown was about foreclosures and jobs not banks and Wall Street, then you may not see the bailouts as achievements, especially in the light of plus 10% unemployment and thousands of foreclosures and business failures. Even if you accept that the bailouts were necessary, you may be irked that the loot could have been handed over in brown paper bags, for all the strings that were attached.

Similarly, if you believe that many of our political problems stem from the unconstitutional transfer of power from the legislature to the executive, even unarguably good outcomes, such as the changes to stem cell research and family planning policies, can be seen as doing further harm to democratic practice if they are secured by executive fiat.

And a "withdrawal" from Iraq that leaves "enduring" military bases, tens of thousands of military trainers and advisers, and an army of private contractors is no withdrawal at all.

Richardson continues with tips of the hat to "Sonia Sotomeyer, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the order to release the torture memos" -- what about the photos?, "...charter schools, his $288 billion tax cut, and the end of Bush's war on medical marijuana. Or the minor fact that he seems" -- I'm trying to stay out of Richardson's way here -- "to have — with Bush's help, it must be said — stopped the financial collapse, revived the credit markets, and nudged the economy toward 3.5 percent growth in the last quarter."

Richardson feels safe in predicting that President Obama is now a month or two from accomplishing "the awesome and seemingly impossible task of passing health-care reform." It remains to be seen, of course, whether the package that finally emerges from negotiations between the House and Senate is anything that can be described fairly as affordable and universal.

And, as they like to say in late-night commercials, that's not all. Richardson also awards Obama points for
Appointing a conservative Bush holdover like Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense.
Appointing an establishment centrist like Leon Panetta at CIA [silencing in the process one of the strongest voices in the Democratic Party calling for CIA accountability for torture].
Appointing a hard-ass like Stanley McChrystal to head up our military forces in Afghanistan, despite McChrystal's dubious involvement in torture and the cover-up of Pat Tillman's death.
Increasing the number of drone attacks on Al Qaeda — more in the last year than all the Bush years combined.
Reinstating, with tweaks, Bush's military tribunal system for Guantánamo prisoners.
Fighting, in another unexpected defense of a controversial Bush policy, lawsuits against the "warrantless wiretapping" program — as recently as this weekend with a decision that a leading civil liberties group called "extremely disappointing."
Sending, way back in February, seventeen thousand more soldiers to Afghanistan. As Fareed Zakaira recently pointed out, this was just three thousand fewer soldiers than Bush sent to Iraq for his famous "surge."
Richardson concludes by setting up a straw man -- the Vital Center -- and then kicking the stuffing out of it. You see, Obama is governing from the middle, so "[b]lame it on the Internet, on partisan politics, on the economic crash, on the legacy of war or Fox News or Michael Moore, but our vital center is getting stiff — and it is starting to stink." Somehow transferring trillions of dollars to the corporate class is a liberal project, or at least so he can seem to be bashing both sides equally Richardson pretends to think so, and expanding the empire is central to the conservative agenda, so both sides are just being churlish when they profess to be disappointed with the way policies that they find important are being addressed.

"What's worse," Richardson says, "both sides are so angry and righteous that they can't even begin to give credit where it is due." I think he's right when he says that conservatives could be more appreciative about that $288 billion tax cut. And you would think the president would be getting a few more kudos from the right for McChrystal and Gates, to say nothing of AfPac and the drones. But to ask "how many liberals choose to be understanding about the practical difficulties of shutting down Guantánamo, achieving equal rights for gays, or tapping Al Qaeda's phones?" is to admit that the left has valid reasons to be unhappy with the Agent of Change. And to wonder "where, on either side, can you find a scrap of humility about the staggeringly complex challenge of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Or a scrap of gratitude at having escaped global financial doom?" is to beg more questions than Alex Trebek.

Our worries about how much Obama has accomplished in the year since we elected him are legitimate, especially considering the magnitude of the problems we face as a nation, and we are not only permitted to express our concerns but, as engaged citizens, we are obligated to express them.

** Richardson points out you "can find other versions of this perspective from Matt Lauer and David Gregory on NBC, from thousands of obnoxious bloggers, even from the hapless governor of New York." 

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