Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Andrew Sullivan: Inch by inch, Barack Obama is moving mountains

Andrew Sullivan is one of the smartest bloggers on the web and his analysis of the Obama presidency is always a must read.

Via TimesOnline:

Between Barack Obama and Tiger Woods, it wasn’t such a good December for idolised, lean, brown golfers. Tiger, however, can hide. Barack, alas, cannot. The venom against Obama has been right up there with that directed against, well, Bush, Clinton, Nixon, Johnson ... America is, after all, a tough political arena.

The right treated the Senate passage of health insurance reform — a bill that essentially subsidises private health insurance for the working poor — as if it were the new dawn of bolshevism. Actually, that would be too mild. “Two-thirds of the country don’t want this. And one-third of these jihadists, these healthcare jihadists, do,” opined the Republican commentator Mary Matalin.

The left, however, was no kinder. Many leading liberal lights called for the bill to be killed because it gave too much to insurance and drug companies and failed to provide a publicly funded alternative to private insurance. The columnist Arianna Huffington lamented: “If the miserable Senate healthcare bill becomes the law of the land, it’s only going to encourage the preservation of a hideously broken system.”

My favourite splutter came from the Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson, who declared the entire bill an encomium to Obama’s self-centredness. “It is about him: about the legacy he covets as the president who achieved ‘universal’ health insurance,” Samuelson inveighed. Then — hilariously — he added: “To be sure, the [proposals] would provide insurance to 30m or more Americans by 2019.” What did the Romans ever do for us?

The bill is not perfect and will need work in the next few years — on cutting some entitlements and controlling costs in other ways. But the law remains largely what Obama promised in the campaign.

As with most attempts to judge Obama, a little perspective helps. So let’s review, shall we? This is the biggest single piece of social legislation in 40 years. The Congressional Budget Office predicts it will indeed insure 30m people.

And this is only the end of year one. In the stimulus package in the spring, Obama invested an unprecedented amount of federal money in infrastructure, with an unsung focus on non-carbon energy sources. He engineered a vast and nerve-racking banking rescue that is now under-budget by $200 billion because so many banks survived. He organised the restructuring of the US car industry. He appointed Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina Supreme Court justice, solidifying his non-white political base. If market confidence is one reason we appear to have avoided a second Great Depression, then the president deserves a modicum of credit for conjuring it. Growth is edging back into the picture.

No recent president has had such a substantive start since Ronald Reagan. But what Reagan did was to shift the underlying debate in America from what government should do to what it should not. His was a domestic policy of negation and inactivism, and a foreign policy of rearmament and sharp edges. Obama has, in a mirror image of 1981, reoriented America back to a political culture that asks what government will now do: to prevent a banking collapse, to avoid a depression, to insure the working poor, to ameliorate climate change, to tackle long-term debt. The point about health insurance reform, after all, is that it represents a big expansion of government intervention in the lives of the citizenry — and that’s a game-changer from three decades of conservative governance.

Abroad, the shift has been even more marked. From his Cairo speech to his resetting of relations with Russia, an era of polarisation has ceded to one of intense engagement. We have had the supplanting of the G8 by the G20, a dramatic upgrade of public opinion towards America across the globe, an overhaul of the war in Afghanistan, an end to torture as an instrument of US government and the slow unwinding of Guantanamo. On Iran, Obama held out what he called an open hand, managed to dislodge Russia a few inches from its usual anti-sanctions approach, busted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the United Nations on the Qom nuclear site, and held tight as the coup regime was assailed from within. If Tehran’s international position has veered between rank belligerence and confused drift, it is because the regime itself is far weaker than it was a year ago, and may not last another year.

The disillusioned are those who weren’t listening in the campaign or not watching closely in the first year. The right has failed to register his steeliness and persistence and the left has preferred to ignore his temperamental and institutional conservatism. Both sides still misread him — hence the spluttering gloom. And there is indeed something dispiriting about the relentless prose of government compared with the poetry of the campaign. But Obama is a curious blend of both: a relentless pragmatist and a soaring rhetorician.

In time, if the economy recovers, if black, young and Hispanic voters see the benefits of their new healthcare security, if troops begin to come home from Iraq in large numbers next summer, if jobs begin to return by the autumn, then the logic of his election will endure. His care to keep the tone civil, to insist on impure change rather than ideological stasis has already turned the Republicans into foam-flecked nostalgics for a simpler, whiter, easier period and has flummoxed those leftliberals who wanted revenge as much as reform. Both are part of an embittered past that Obama wants to leave behind. His clarity on this, and his refusal to take the bait of divisiveness and partisanship, is striking. That takes an enormous amount of self-confidence and self-restraint.

He has failed in one respect: the political culture is still deeply partisan, opportunistic and divided. But this, I believe, is not so much a function of his liberal pragmatism as it is a remnant of an American right in drastic need of new intellectual life and rhetorical restraint. In this respect, Obama has made the right crazier, which may be a necessary prelude to it becoming saner.

It’s worth remembering that America is a vast and cumbersome machine, designed to resist deep change. That this one man has moved the country a few key, structural degrees in one year, and that the direction is as clear and as strategic as that first embraced by Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (in the opposite direction), is under-appreciated. But the shift is real and more dramatic than current events might indicate. I wouldn’t bet on its evanescence quite yet.

About his piece Sullivan says this on his blog:

In some respects, the right, however unhinged, understands the importance of what Obama has accomplished more than the purist, whiny left.

Yes, this first year is marked more by the miracles of what didn't happen - a Second Great Depression, a Second 9/11, an Israeli strike on Iran, a banking collapse, a health insurance reform failure - than what did. And yes, Obama is on notice that, whatever the enormity of the mess he inherited, the opposition has no sense of responsibility for any of it and will blame him for everything and anything. All he has going for him is the American public's ability to see through the dust and fury to the realities beneath.

And Obama is changing those realities. More than most seem to currently grasp. This is liberalism's moment - its most fortuitous since 1964, its chance to prove that government is indeed needed at times, as long as it knows its limits, and the balance of the American polity needs active, intelligent government action now. What Obama is doing is trying to cement this new liberal era in the conservative institutional structure of American government.

Against massive, unrelenting, well-moneyed, ideologically manic opposition - and a fickle, purist, prickly liberal elite in his own party.

Well, no one said it would be easy.

Thoughts? I really think he is spot on.
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