Im feeling a bit sorry for President Obama as we approach a midterm election in which he is poised to be cast off like an old sock. The infatuation with Obama was overdone in 2008,and so is the rejection of him today. So heres my message: Give him a chance.
Like others,I have my disappointments with Obama,including his tripling of forces in Afghanistan. Yet the central problem isnt that Obama has been a weak communicator as president or squandered his political capital although both are true but that were mired in the aftermath of the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s.
Bill Clinton,who was as good a president as weve had in modern times,captured Obamas challenge: Id like to see any of you get behind a locomotive going straight downhill at 200 miles an hour and stop it in 10 seconds, Clinton told a crowd. He also noted that the midterm elections are not a referendum. Lets make this a referendum on everything thats bothering you about life right now, he paraphrased the Republicans as saying,before adding: It is not a referendum. It. Is. A. Choice. A choice between two different sets of ideas.
The criticisms of Obama from the left often ring true to me,but I also think we elide the political difficulties of getting better legislation past obstructionists in Congress. The economic crisis has also distracted from authentic accomplishments. Presidents since Harry Truman have been pushing for health care reform,and it was Obama who finally achieved it. The economy seemed at risk of another Great Depression when he took office,and that was downgraded to a recession from which we have officially emerged even though the pain is still biting.
Obama has also helped engineer a successful auto bailout,a big push for clean energy,and tighter financial regulation including reform of credit card rules. Above all,Obama has been stellar in one area crucial to our countrys future: education. Democrats historically have been AWOL on school reform because they are beholden to teacher unions,but Obama has reframed the debate and made it safe to talk about teaching standards and bad teachers. Until Obama,Democrats barely acknowledged that it was possible for a teacher to be bad. He has also revamped and expanded student loans and bolstered support for community colleges,opening a new path to higher education for working-class Americans. Millions more Americans may end up in college.
Presidents in both parties have talked for years about the importance of education,but until now it has been lip service. Improving Americas inner-city schools will be a long slog,but Obama has done far more than any other president in this area arguably our single greatest national challenge.
So,sure,go ahead and hold Obamas feet to the fire. He deserves to be held accountable. But lets not allow economic malaise to cloud our judgment and magnify Americas problems in ways that become self-fulfilling.
-Nicholas D. Kristof