Two Cents on Barack Obama

Vernon Jordan has seen it all in American politics since he graduated from Howard University Law School fifty years ago next June. He led the Urban League in the great days of civil rights turmoil, broke racial barriers as a director of major American corporations, reached the pinnacle of law and banking in Washington and New York, and for decades has a been a powerbroker among Democrats. "How's Obama doing?" I asked Jordan recently. He paused, smiled, and replied, "I am still in the moment."

Jordan was and is very close to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Although he hosted Obama's first fundraiser in Washington when the young state legislator decided to run for the Senate, Jordan supported Mrs. Clinton in the primaries and, privately, advised Obama that his run for the presidency in 2008 was, in Jordan's view, premature.

But the election of Obama was a transcendent experience for Vernon Jordan. In the United States at the start of the twenty-first century, an African-American, navigating myriad obstacles of class and identity (with a middle name, incredibly, the same as a national enemy), had amassed the money and votes need to win the presidency. That was Jordan's "moment" to be savored. After a year, it is still possible to marvel that America has Barack Hussein Obama as its leader. Whatever your views on how well he has done, reflect again this New Year's week at the improbability of it all: an inspiring symbol of the cultural transformation of the United States in the past half century.

But celebrating Obama's presidency is not the same as hailing his administration's record so far. Set aside the 47.1 percent of voting Americans who did not vote for him, especially the splenetic infrastructure of pols and pundits whose animus is profound but so predictable as to be useless as a real measure of policies or progress. What is striking is the criticism of Obama among those who did vote for him. Three very wise observers (who I will not name because these were casual conversations) provided the range of complaints expressed by those who, ultimately, want Obama to succeed.

The first appraisal was that he is too conciliatory; he should be more assertive on principles, less willing to solicit engagement with his political opponents who see that openness as weakness and will take full advantage. By their standard, Obama has gotten nothing out of seeking cooperation from the GOP in Congress and little of consequence from international interlocutors like Iran, Pakistan, China, North Korea, and Russia.

The opposite criticism is that he is arrogant, too eloquent for his own good, and misled by his belief that his rhetoric in Cairo on Islam, in Oslo on peace, in West Point on Afghanistan, and in Congress on health care somehow will persuade resistant constituencies of the validity of his arguments. In this assessment, the administration lacks the expertise and judgment of senior figures with "real world" experience as distinct from the academics, politicians, and civil servants who hold most of the top jobs.

Finally, there is the claim that Obama's White House still functions, to its disadvantage, in campaign mode, with a small number of senior advisers, mainly from the election team, shaping policy with virtually no significant input from the cabinet or the rest of executive branch. Inviting prominent outsiders to the White House essentially has been a promotional exercise, so this case goes, with all real decision-making done in a few West Wing offices.

The media consensus on Obama draws on all three of these assessments to drive a narrative that highlights opinion polls showing his approval ratings at or below 50 percent, lower than most presidents at the end of their first year. At every turn, the media tends to conclude that Obama faces a pivotal, even decisive, test of his presidency that could (choose the term) undermine, cripple, or derail his agenda and presumably assure major setbacks going into the 2010 national election cycle.

So here's another take, which does not dismiss all these critiques, but provides a different perspective: as the year comes to a close, the Senate and House have adopted historic health reform legislation; a climate change agreement was reached in Copenhagen that could be the basis for meaningful controls; the domestic and international economic and financial systems veered away from catastrophe and are poised for recovery; a policy for Afghanistan is in place tenuously balanced between surge and withdrawal; the exit of American combat forces from Iraq is continuing. As for China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and the Israel-Palestinian deadlock, Obama has at least shifted the tenor of interaction with the possibility that the effort may still be productive.

Whatever headway Obama makes on any of these fronts, the commentary immediately focuses on the obstacles that loom, inevitably, in what are complex and mostly long-standing issues. For example, the U.S-Russia strategic arms talks appear to be on the verge of a new treaty to reduce nuclear arsenals. This should be a higher security priority than it is. Imagine, for example, one wayward missile in the hands of a renegade Chechen. But there is already opposition among what is being called "the Gang of 40 plus One"--the assumption that every GOP senator plus Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut will oppose an agreement, no matter how the terms of the accord are framed. That is where Obama's battle on this and virtually all the administration's proposals have to start. The political reality in the United States today is that Obama's majority finds fault and his opponents reflexively reject his proposals.

For Barack Obama, triumph though it was, reaching the White House turns out to have been the easy part.