Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Obama Agonistes

Democrats and journalists are talking hopefully about the ultimately happy outcome in 1994, when that year's disastrous midterm election -- the GOP won both houses of Congress -- spurred Bill Clinton toward the center and a six-year second presidency now considered one of the most successful in recent memory. There's also 1936, when FDR was reelected in spite of the ravages of the Great Depression.

It's a long way to 2012, when we assume Barack Obama will seek reelection. Perhaps by then he'll have transformed himself into the new Roosevelt or Clinton. But I fear not -- and I mean fear, because I don't crave Republican rule. For months, he's evinced no joy about the job he won so effortlessly. Instead, he seems impatient and restive, as he has his whole adult life. He seems like a leading candidate to be the new old Bush.

Obama's proud of what he takes to be world-changing initiatives such as health care reform, perhaps even a little smug about having had the vision to force them through. He still blames his predecessor for the lagging economy. And yet I wonder how different the world would be if he'd decided to spend his first two years on nothing but jobs and GDP growth. Instead of turning the architecture of the 2009 stimulus bill over to congressional leaders who cobbled it together out of every ward-heeling pet project members had been saving up for years, what if he he'd spent the same near-trillion on a coherent jobs, investment, and infrastructure package designed by the best and the brightest among a range of economic experts? Instead of spending a year on health care, what if he'd used every public appearance to promise his worried people that he wouldn't rest until every American who wanted to work was doing so?

Assuming today's obstructionist Republicans would even work with him on those kinds of policies, does he have the talent and heart for a log-rolling, back-scratching, Ronnie-loves-Tip presidency? That would take passion he hasn't demonstrated yet. The patrician Roosevelt learned to love his suffering people. After his '94 drubbing, Clinton learned to master and love the presidency. Remember when George H.W. Bush looked at his watch during one of the 1992 debates, a few months before Clinton beat him? I'm wondering if Obama isn't looking at his and saying to himself: I've got two more years of this?

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