The Election—IV

Barack Obama
Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

Steven Weinberg

The presidency of Barack Obama began to fail on January 6, 2009, a fortnight before the president was inaugurated. Only on that day, the first day of a new Congress, the rules of the Senate could have been changed by a simple majority vote. That was the last opportunity to revise the rule that requires sixty votes to limit a filibuster. Of course, no president-elect or president has authority to change the Senate rules, but this president-elect had ample means to exert pressure on senators. For instance, he could have confronted Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, with the prospect of administration support for the nuclear waste disposal facility at Yucca Mountain, whose worst drawback was its unpopularity in Nevada. Alas, Barack Obama proved himself to be no Lyndon Johnson.

Even though Democrats would have a majority in both houses of Congress for the next two years, the Republican ability to filibuster in the Senate meant that bipartisan compromise would be needed to pass any legislation or approve any appointments. This sort of compromise may have been congenial to President Obama anyway, but after January 6 it was unavoidable. So we have a health care plan based on costly private insurance, without even a public option. We have state and local governments forced to lay off teachers and police and other employees, thus creating the largest part of current unemployment. We have regulatory agencies in the executive branch that remain the captives of the industries they are supposed to regulate. We have a continued decline in the position of organized labor. We have not made up for the lack of effective consumer demand with a large program of needed public spending. We are retreating in our support for scientific research. We have increasing income inequality. And so on.

Even faced with the necessity of compromise, President Obama could have declared a truly liberal economic program, and when it was defeated or weakened by Congress he could have gone to the nation in 2010 and 2012 as Harry Truman did in 1948, to call for a Congress that would pass his program. Not having done so, it is not surprising that he now faces widespread apathy among his former supporters.

In foreign affairs, it is difficult for anyone outside the administration to tell what can be done or how to do it, but at least one can judge the actual achievements of the Obama administration. They have been disappointing. Iran, a country run by murderous theocrats, has passed one milestone after another in its development of nuclear weapons. Our influence in Iraq has decayed to the point that Iran is allowed to supply weapons to the Assad government in Syria by flights over Iraq. We have wasted lives and resources in Afghanistan, a nation famous for resisting improvement. No progress has been made toward international limitations on greenhouse gases.…

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