Obama's mistake was taking his eye off the ball - jobs

U.S. president tried to do too much and ended up angering the voters

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The Gazette, Sunday, January 24, 2010

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama said he gave himself "a B+" for his first year as president of the United States. Well, that's where historians usually come in. Moreover, the voters have another view, and the other night they gave Obama a rude wake-up call.

In a special election to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts, the most reliably liberal state in America, Democratic candidate Martha Coakley lost by six points. The Democrats thus lost their "super majority" of 60 senators that bulletproofs legislation against being talked to death by filibusters. Scott Brown said his first priority was to be the 41st Republican vote against health care in the Senate. It is supremely ironic that Ted Kennedy's death could well doom the great cause of his life, and the signature legislation of Obama's first year in office.

It turns out that Obama shouldn't have talked about health care when the American people, with 10-per-cent unemployment, wanted to hear about jobs. Health care might have been his priority but it wasn't theirs. Not even close.

Obama took his eye off the ball - the economy. He used the bully pulpit of the presidency and all his powers of persuasion in an address to Congress on health care last fall, to no avail among voters.

Moreover, he is suffering from agenda overload - big time. Economic recovery, health care, climate change, Iraq, and Afghanistan are all big-ticket items. The U.S. deficit of $1.8 trillion, larger than the entire economy of Canada, is 12 per cent of GDP. The national debt of $13 trillion is approaching 100 per cent of GDP.

Obama's response to the 3 a.m. phone call from the voters of Massachusetts was to strike a populist note by calling for limits on the size of big banks, which have all staged a remarkable recovery from the meltdown of 2008. Naturally, the stock market tanked on the news. His State of the Union speech is being rewritten to reflect a single theme: jobs, jobs, jobs.

Obama won the presidency as a rhetorical leader, on a message of hope and change. Rhetorical leaders - Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan - usually become transformational presidents. After Obama's first year in office, he appears strangely diffident and detached.

Obama's management style is also raising questions. As the New York Times has noted, he puts down deadlines on issues such as a health care, climate change, closing Guantanamo, Iran renouncing nuclear goals. The deadlines come and go, hardly a signal of strength.

Obama also excels at analyzing issues from all directions. His Afghanistan policy, of a troop surge this year and draw-down next year, is a complex compromise that was months in the making. But with 100,000 American troops soon to be on the ground there, it is Obama's war.

After the underwear- bomber incident on Christmas Day, it took two weeks and four statements before Obama finally got it right by by acknowledging that "ultimately, the buck stops with me."

The worst moment of his first year in office was the Copenhagen conference on climate change. When he went on the last day of the summit rather than the first, that should have been a signal that an agreement was at hand. It wasn't. The conference was a disaster and the take-notes agreement is a flimsy substitute. Worst of all, Obama got played, then stood up the Chinese, who refused to accept verification of emissions reductions, and thus declined the generous transition funding offered by the Americans. The Chinese then sent subalterns to two heads- of-government meetings attended by Obama, and started a third one convened by him without him. By this point, Reagan would have been at the airport on his way home.

It's one thing for a U.S. president to be seen as reasonable. It's quite another, and not good for us all, for him to be seen as weak.

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