Barack Obama, a Failed Problem Solver

John Podesta says the president can create space where change can happen. It's true. So why doesn't he deliver?

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In Ron Suskind's book Confidence Men, the author interviews John Podesta, former chief of staff to Bill Clinton, who analyzes the difference between his former boss and Barack Obama. "Clinton has an ability to synthesize competing positions, to command the room and arrive at ingenious versions of the middle ground, that's often invisible to others," Podesta said. Whereas Obama "draws people out of their comfort zone, but he does it subtly, challenging them with his openness and his commitment to change. He ends up making them rise to the occasion. He doesn't just synthesize and sell a solution. He finds opportunities in the larger body of players to create circumstances where change can happen. He's creating a space where solutions can happen."

It's easy to see what he means. During George W. Bush's tenure, Obama managed to do what a lot of people doubted was possible: He created a space wherein a viable presidential bid could be mounted by a Democrat who opposed the Iraq war, asserted that the Bush administration broke the law when it tortured detainees, and insisted that we needn't compromise our values or the rule of law to be safe from terrorism. If elected, Obama promised, he would shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, end unconstitutional spying on Americans, and introduce unprecedented transparency into the executive branch. And then he won saying all that!

As a result, Obama entered office with a mandate that had civil libertarians and progressives as hopeful as they'd ever dared to be. But having created a space where change could happen, he proceeded to adopt most policies of his predecessor, so much that Dick Cheney, thought by progressives to be one of the most radical national security officials in U.S. history, ultimately began praising him. Rather than reverse the excesses of the War on Terrorism, Obama has normalized most of them, a course that has made the Bush/Cheney approach into the bipartisan consensus, a normalized part of the governing establishment in Washington, D.C.

For opponents of Bush/Cheneyism, the Obama presidency has been a disaster.

I came across the passage about Obama's ability to "create a space where solutions can happen" in a Huffington Post essay titled "The Promise of Obama's Second Term." What its author fails to explain is why creating space for solutions is useful if implementing them is never attempted, even on matters like executive power and transparency where Obama has total control. I see no reason why a civil libertarian, or anyone alarmed by War on Terrorism excesses or government secrecy, would support or trust or be inspired again by Obama's soaring rhetoric. It is sometimes effective at building coalitions, as Election 2008 proved, but the idealism of the people in those coalitions was just exploited as a means to power. Their hope was stoked, but the change never came.

Image credit: Reuters