Eric Foner: Obama the Professional





[Eric Foner, a member of The Nation's editorial board, is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, specializing in the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery and nineteenth-century America.]

The first year may not be the best way to judge a president. After one year in office, Abraham Lincoln still insisted that slavery would not become a target of the Union war effort, Franklin D. Roosevelt had yet to address the need for social insurance in the wake of the Great Depression and John F. Kennedy viewed the civil rights movement as an annoying distraction. If we admire them today, it is mostly for what happened during the rest of their presidencies.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to view Obama's initial year without a feeling of deep disappointment. This arises from more than unrealistic expectations, although his candidacy certainly aroused a great deal of wishful thinking among those yearning for a change after nearly thirty years of Reaganism. Nor does disappointment result from too exacting a standard of judgment. In fact, the bar has arguably been set too low. Too many of us have been willing to fall back on a comparison between Obama and his predecessor, arguably the worst president in American history, and leave it at that....

Obama has no evident desire to address the questions that defined New Deal liberalism and remain all too relevant today--economic inequality; mass unemployment; unrestrained corporate power; and the struggle of workers, through unions, to enjoy "industrial democracy." Where Obama has been good is on issues that were subordinate themes during the 1930s but have become central to post-World War II liberalism--women's reproductive rights, respect for civil liberties and the rule of law, environmentalism and racial and ethnic diversity, especially in government employment.

Obama also embodies a strain of thought alien to the New Deal but associated with the Progressivism of the early twentieth century, the desire to take politics out of the hands of politicians. Like the old Progressives, he seems to believe that the government can move beyond partisan politics to operate in a businesslike manner to promote the public good (despite clear evidence that the other side is not cooperating). As in the Progressive Era, this outlook goes hand in hand with a strong respect for scientific expertise (quite different from George W. Bush's approach)....

One lesson we should learn from Obama's first year is the difficulty of effecting change, even in times of crisis. Fearful of popular democracy, the men who wrote the Constitution created a government system designed to make it far easier to prevent change than to implement it. Today this structural inertia is compounded by the power of money in politics and by an entrenched military establishment. Obama has failed to heed the lesson Kennedy learned from the Bay of Pigs debacle at the outset of his presidency--not to accept at face value the advice of his generals (a realization that served Kennedy and the world well during the Cuban missile confrontation of 1962)....

Given this country's tortured racial history, Obama's election will always represent a symbolic watershed. To make sure that it amounts to more than this, progressives must stop making excuses or falling back on extenuating circumstances in assessing Obama. Without forgetting the differences between Obama and his increasingly retrograde Republican opposition, we must reject the outdated assumptions to which Obama clings on economic and foreign policy and forthrightly press for genuine change, speaking truth to power even when that power is held by men and women we helped put into office.



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