The Case Against Barack Obama, Part I — 29 October 2012

It will surprise few readers of this column that I believe Barack Obama should be turfed out of the White House next Tuesday.  But I think it would be useful to detail what I think are the principle charges against him, and the main reasons to vote for a change.

The first one is competence.  President Obama has not proved himself up to the task for which he has been elected.  Whether for ideological reasons or simply his own shortcomings, he comes to the end of his first term with a tattered record.

This is not to say that he has not had legislative successes.  Indeed, one could argue that the laws he signed, notably the Affordable Care Act, have brought him close to his dream of becoming a transformative president.  But the twisted course to passage of the ACA also shows how a more capable leader could have made it the success that Obama failed to achieve.  

Never has major social legislation such as this passed without strong bipartisan support, and never has there been such continued antipathy long after its passage as with this bill.  Now, if Governor Romney is elected, the chances are good that the entire legislation will be scuttled.  A more competent leader would not have left his pet project so vulnerable to reversal.

It was not preordained that Obamacare should pass with no Republican support, and live on as an animating controversy long after its passage.  Despite the urban myth of implacable GOP opposition from the outset of his term, the fact is that Republicans sought to participate in the health care bill and offered up numerous amendments to shape it according to their liking – on tort reform, the ability to purchase insurance across state lines, and the like.  

But the Democrats incorporated none of them in their final bill – as Obama himself said in disdaining Republican contribution, “elections have consequences.”  And so the act was passed on a strict party-line vote in the midst of sordid deal-making, parliamentary shenanigans and rule-stretching, and despite loud and passionate opposition from the public.

President Obama was blinded by the temptation to “go big,” and pass legislation that realized 60 years of liberal ambition.  In the process, he failed to give it the solid political foundation that would ensure its survival and success.  

Obama also failed to get the American people to support this bill.  Despite his vaunted rhetorical powers (“I have a gift, Harry,” he once boasted to the Senate Majority Leader), the forty-plus speeches he gave to generate support for the Affordable Care Act did nothing of the sort.  Somewhere along the way, in the summer of angry Town Hall meetings, in the reluctance of blue-dog Democrats, in the anti-Obamacare election of Scott Brown, an astute politician would have realized that his plan was not going down well, and would have chosen not to cram it down the public’s collective throat without some softening.  

I would argue as well that the President chose to squander considerable political capital in pursuit of universal health care when he should have been devoting all his energies to addressing the economic malady that still afflicts our country.  I need hardly rehearse the continued dismal conditions we face here.  That Obama deliberately chose to pursue health care reform instead of economic recovery for most of 2009 was another failure of his administration.

Of greater concern, however, was President Obama’s failure to provide the economy with the stable tax and regulatory environment an economy – particularly a struggling economy – needs to thrive.  I think the major reason that corporations are sitting on trillions in unproductive cash, and that small business owners are refraining from hiring and expanding, is the uncertainty they see on all sides.  

Both Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform will result in thousands of pages of new rules, many of which have not yet been written, that will alter the prospects for profitability of various enterprises.  It’s no surprise that businesses are playing wait-and-see before committing funds to new ventures.  It’s hard enough to deal with the unknowns of the marketplace; it’s much worse when the set of rules itself is in flux.  

Even worse is the tax situation.  For the last two years, our tax rules have been subject to last-minute patches, short-term deals, temporary extensions, and deferred decisions.  The latest of these leaves us facing the widely-discussed fiscal cliff, in which hundreds of billions of higher taxes, and more hundreds of billions of arbitrary spending cuts, are all scheduled to take place as the markets open on January 2.  It will surely plunge us back into recession.  Who’s going to take a business risk with this prospect in the immediate future?  

President Obama may very well blame uncooperative Republicans for this dilemma, but it’s the president’s job to get things done.  He is the one responsible for the nation’s economic well-being; House members are responsible to their districts.  

Previous presidents found a way to coax enough members of the opposite party to pass important legislation.  George W. Bush got Democratic support for all of his key initiatives – the tax cuts, the Patriot Act, the authorization of force against Iraq, the prescription drug benefit.  It’s one of the core skills of presidential leadership: find a way to get a deal.  President Obama can’t get it done.  

Several recent books, including Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics, and Edward Klein’s The Amateur, have shown that Barack Obama doesn’t know how to negotiate.  Rather than bargain, cajole, wheedle, or twist arms, Obama lectures.  He doesn’t listen to others, he doesn’t cultivate relations with lawmakers – even of his own party – and he doesn’t collect and trade favors to achieve his preferred ends.  As a result, his negotiations are largely fruitless.

Indeed, a former aide, Neera Tanden, once said, “It’s stunning that he’s in politics, because he really doesn’t like people.”  

It shows. Barack Obama, for whatever reason buried in his complicated past, chose a profession for which he lacks some of the basic interpersonal skills.  That’s why he has been a failure.

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