This originally appeared in the Sunday, January 24 edition of NOW! as an op-ed.
As an American, I can understand, even if it seems inexplicable to the rest of the world, why there is so much talk calling President Barack Obama’s first year in office a “disappointment.” We did, after all, put our heart and soul into that election, and for once American politics seemed to be going right. Not only were we getting “Anyone But Bush,” but we had a candidate who was young and energetic, who gave rousing speeches that made us believe in our future, and who, at first glance anyways, appeared to share all of our deepest held convictions. After the eight years of political misery and shame, and with all the world crashing down around us in the financial crisis, can you really blame us for putting all our hopes and dreams on Obama’s shoulders? For wanting it to be easy? For supposing, subconsciously even if we never admitted it, that we could just sit back and rest our eyes for a little bit, and all our troubles would go away?
Yes actually, you should blame us, those Americans who demand the impossible for nothing, who now see hypocrisy only because they never looked closely at his promises, who have suddenly and inexcusably become blind to the complexities of the American political system and the terrible inertia of the problems facing the President, and from whom the rest of the world media seems to be taking their cues this week. For in wanting and saying all these things, about disappointment and betrayal and “the next Jimmy Carter,” these Americans have undermined President Obama’s political capital and sabotaged his ability to eventually bring them all these wonderful things they want from him. We should blame them, and ourselves.
The American political system, while not as messy and bureaucratic as democracy in India, is a big and aged thing, hulking and lumbering with a unique gait, occasionally pausing to scratch at some apparently pointless itch. Our President may be powerful, commanding the mightiest military and wearing the heavy mantle of “Leader of the Free World,” but he is not all powerful. The Senate and the House and the Judiciary each have their own powers, and each member of each branch has their own agenda. Wrangling notoriously fractious liberal politicians into passing huge, sweeping legislation over conservative obstructionism was never going to be easy. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were never going to have a single, simple miraculous solution. (Some liberals secretly relished each new massacre and bombing and setback in the wars, for each provided them with new opportunities to lash at Bush; apparently this habit has continued, albeit mutated, into the Obama Administration.) Most importantly, the financial crisis and subsequent economic downturn were always going to take their toll for longer than anyone would like, and nothing can be done, not even by the “Leader of the Free World,” to change that. Don’t blame Obama: blame Bush and blame the bankers.
And yet, still the “disappointment” seems tangible. “Sure, he inherited all these problems,” people say, “but he’s still doing it wrong.” But one only needs to watch a couple episodes of The West Wing to understand that in making policy there is rarely a “right” or “wrong” way. Should the army spend more money on rifle rounds or pistol rounds? Is this proposed bridge worth building? How much can you limit fishing or hunting in an area before local economy suffers too much? What do you do with abused and mistreated, but possibly also guilty and dangerous prisoners of war? A hundred or thousand of these choices might reveal a greater ideology, but balancing everything is very hard and pleasing everyone is impossible.
Then there is the more sinister accusation: that Obama has not done enough. In normal and prosperous times, a new President would spend his first year or so just settling in, setting up a reliable staff, finding a rhythm of ceremonial duties, ingratiating himself with the political class. Of course these are not normal times. Still, even with higher expectations than usual, the claim that he hasn’t done anything perplexes me. He has ordered the shutdown of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, for years a blight on the USA’s international reputation. He began the admittedly difficult and arduous process of withdrawing the American military presence in Iraq, and he has instituted a new strategic push so that America can soon do the same in Afghanistan. He pushed through a revolutionary stimulus package that, however much the economy might still be suffering, most experts agree has saved the country from a far worse depression. He has rebooted America’s relations with the international community, especially the Muslim world. He has sparked a movement, however embattled, to make sweeping reforms to America’s troubled healthcare system. And perhaps most important, and most ignored, Obama has made important first steps towards a meaningful push to rid the world of nuclear weapons and find compromises to defuse the ambitions of dangerous states. And that’s just the cliff notes version. Compare this to what Clinton accomplished in his first year, or the damage Bush did in his. It seems to me the American left, and the rest of the world, need to shed a measure of myopia and gain a measure of patience.