There’s a fantastic episode in the first season of The West Wing when all of the staff are disillusioned with the tasks they have been assigned. Josh is exploring the idea of the President nominating two people to the FEC, without taking the names straight from the Congressional leaders. Sam has a meeting with members of the military to ascertain if there can be any progress made in repealing the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that banned openly gay men and women serving their country in uniform. Toby complains to Leo that they have secured only one victory in slightly over a year since the President took office. All of the senior members of the administration, including the President, have become frustrated and the reason is determined to be that they always head for the safe ground – forgetting the grandiose promises of the campaign, favouring instead centrist policies that they believe will increase their chances of getting a second term. The White House Chief of Staff confronts President Bartlet at the end of the episode to tell him that it is time for them to take risks, pursue the things they believe in and, if they lose, at least they put up a fight. The new initiative was summed up by Leo with the mantra of “Let Bartlet be Bartlet”.
I know President Obama is a busy man, so may not have time to watch the whole show, but I wish somebody would at least play him the closing scene – perhaps leave it on loop in the residence – in an attempt to inspire him to focus more on doing what he believes, not solely on retaining office in November. I read “The Audacity of Hope” back in the summer of 2007, when then-Senator Obama was running third in the polls to get the Democratic Presidential Nomination behind John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. For the first time, I believed in a politician and was actually motivated to get behind his candidacy, developing a rooting interest in an election beyond hoping one particular person loses. It was not just me either; all through this campaign, Obama was able to garner grass-roots support because he came across as genuine, passionate about issues and concerned about how to fix problems and would not shy away from a fight.
President Obama’s election gave hope to African-Americans; to young people; to those on the left whose voices had been in the wilderness for the previous eight years; to many who had become disenfranchised with the political system. On his third day in office, the President signed an executive order that guaranteed that the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay would be closed within a year – more than three years later, it remains open. When the health care debate started, the plan was to have a public option that would guarantee health coverage for those who could not afford it, nor had a job that offered insurance as a benefit. However, this was quickly dropped and the bill that was passed – now known as “Obamacare” thanks to the power and influence of Fox News – contained a mandate that everyone was required to buy insurance. That law, which is likely to be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court next month, did nothing to help those who are most in need, instead it served only the insurance companies who were guaranteed more customers.
For the first two years of his Presidency, Obama was hesitant about legislation passing, despite the Democrats having control of both Houses of Congress, because they did not have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Since the mid-term elections, there has been little chance of getting anything done, as the GOP have control of the House of Representatives and when the big issues have come up – in particular the raising of the debt-ceiling – they have only been resolved by the Democrats caving in to all of the Republicans demands. It is time for the President to stand up for what he believes in and forget the consequences of failing to get things passed. When President Clinton was faced with a choice from Speaker Gingrich and the GOP in 1995/6 of accepting cuts or not having the Federal Budget passed, he allowed the Government to shut down, rather than going against his core values and reducing funding for Medicare, education and the environment.
Instead of avoiding fights for risk of losing, President Obama’s administration should have made the Senate Republicans carry out a filibuster, as opposed to backing down under the mere threat of one. With healthcare, the public option should have been maintained and the risk of failing to pass any legislation was not a good enough reason to accept such a watered down version. The electorate would have been supportive of a President who tried to get his legislative agenda passed, even if the GOP were obstructionist and prevented him from getting it done. At a time when Congress has an incredibly low approval rating, there was value in failing because of them, rather than acquiescing to their ultimatums. Unfortunately, the Obama administration did not agree.
When those on the right criticise President Obama, they tend to refer to him as a dangerous Euro-Socialist who wants to raise taxes on the rich to fund big government and increase welfare handouts, regardless of what his record has shown since he took office. For those of us who wish he had pursued a more left-wing course, it is particularly frustrating to hear him described in this way, while the hopes and promise of the campaign have not been fulfilled. With the state of the economy Obama inherited, what was needed was a President like Franklin D. Roosevelt – whose New Deal helped the United States emerge from the Great Depression as the strongest economy on the planet, and put people’s trust back in Government. Instead, the stimulus that was passed was only big enough to avoid the recession worsening, and the continuation of historically low taxation rates on the highest earners has been the major reason for the slowness of the recovery.
So many issues have moved so far to the right in the USA, that they are not even on the table for discussion anymore. Gun control is no longer part of the debate, even after the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords in January of 2011. The Bush-era tax cuts were extended by this administration, for fear of Congress holding up other legislation if they were allowed to expire. There is no discussion over whether the death penalty should be maintained – even when the veracity of the guilty verdict is in serious doubt – and when Osama Bin-Laden was assassinated by Navy SEALs, nobody stopped to ask if that was the right course of action, or if perhaps an attempt should have been made to capture him alive and put him on trial for his crimes.
Between Fox News and the Republican Party, talking points are repeated and recycled enough until they become accepted as reality – it is time for the Democrats and those on the left in this country to stand up and set their own agenda for issues to be debated. There are still than five months before the election and there is still time for the President to fight for what he believes in, not just a second term. Should he win in November, Obama may well move to the left – since he will never have to run for office again – but it should not take a President four years to stand up for what he believes in.