News & Views from 465 California Street

The Ambivalent President

Clint Reilly

Barack Obama must succeed. After so many young people and first time voters invested their hopes in his presidency, his failure would elicit a level of despair that would plague the Democratic Party for decades to come.

The Democratic message was resurgent in 2008. Millions of new voters teamed up with Obama to reassert the government’s role in improving lives and protecting the public interest. A wave of optimism swept over the country and restored faith in America’s ability to renew itself domestically and regain moral standing internationally.

No symbol better characterized young people’s investment in Obama than the millions of “Hope” posters that appeared in windows across America.

But is Obama’s leadership meeting the expectations of these new civic participants?

The charitable answer is “not yet.” Obama’s indecisive White House is a case study of Washington’s finger-in-the-wind style of followership.

Nine months into his presidency, Obama has yet to take a strong leadership position on three compelling issues of our time: Regulatory reform of the financial system, health care reform, and the war in Afghanistan.

Instead of pushing bold solutions, he has deferred to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and their committee chairs in the House and Senate. In the case of Afghanistan, the president seems to be biting his nails behind the scenes while his administration conducts “a top-to-bottom review of our policy.”

A year after Wall Street’s collapse and the near meltdown of the global financial system, President Obama has still not signed a major piece of financial reform legislation. Franklin Roosevelt, by comparison, had overhauled almost the entire banking system within his first 100 days in office.

Obama’s inaction allowed financial industry lobbyists to take control of the issue and gut any substantive regulatory oversight. To date, not a single bill has reached the president’s desk that would curb the financial practices responsible for the crisis.

And the trillion-dollar rescue mission meant to stabilize the financial sector and stimulate the economy? Most of the money has gone to shore up big banks and corporations while few stimulus dollars benefiting the middle class have actually been spent.

On the subject of health care reform, the president has been equally passive. His ambivalent language on critical matters such as the public option and the mixed signals coming from 1600 Pennsylvania have muddied the waters of the debate.

Both the House and the Senate appear to have determined that a public option is a crucial component of true health care reform legislation. Just last week, Harry Reid overruled a more conservative plan worked out between Obama and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus.

Obama’s contribution seemed to be a series of compromises aimed at attracting the vote of Republican Senator Olympia Snow. The bold, assertive leadership expected of President Obama on this millennial issue has just not been there.

The war in Afghanistan is perhaps the best example of Obama’s rhetoric failing to match reality. During last year’s campaign, he repeatedly asserted his credentials as the only candidate to unequivocally oppose the Iraq War. He differentiated his candidacy by criticizing Hillary Clinton’s Senate vote to support funding for the war while she proclaimed opposition to it.

Obama used Clinton’s vote as an example of the political doublespeak that he pledged to eliminate as president. Now that he sits in the Oval Office, Obama is in danger of committing the very sin he railed against last year. He has yet to articulate a clear policy in Afghanistan while the fighting escalates each day. More American lives were lost this month than at any time in the conflict.

Such congenital ambivalence is not the quality Obama voters thought they were sending to Washington. If Obama turns out to be just another Beltway pol, his disillusioned army of first time participants may never return to the front lines.

Comments (19)

  • Dear Clint,

    I frequently check out your column in the Contra Costa Times for interesting
    commentary. I was especially struck by what you wrote today about President Obama.
    His style of governing was pretty apparent in the campaign. He was not the
    “decider”, he was the anti-Bush. I felt (like you did) that Hillary Clinton would be
    the stronger leader but unfortunately her handlers did not focus enough on making
    her image acceptable to younger voters. She either came off as “somebody’s mom” or a
    strident pol. It was hard for younger voters to see past that and she wasn’t sending
    text messages. Don’t get me wrong, I voted for and like Barack Obama. He seems to
    have softened our public image in the world. His personal style and articulate
    delivery of speeches is a refreshing contrast to the last eight years. But it does
    not surprise me that voters went for image rather than leadership at the polls, yet
    again. Myrna D

    Posted by: Myrna D. | November 3rd, 2009 at 10:58 am

  • I read your columns with great interest every week and I do
    hope that our President does the same. Especially today. He would
    truly become the people’s elected leader if he followed your comments
    and acted upon them!

    Posted by: Jorgen | November 3rd, 2009 at 10:59 am

  • Obama is a failure and was so before the election. He has no business acumen and
    his policies are anti-american and domed to lead this country further in a financial
    and social quagmire. To be an effective leader you need wisdom. For wisdom you
    need intelligence and experience. He has neither.

    Posted by: Don H. | November 3rd, 2009 at 10:59 am

  • Mr. Reilly –

    You definitely got it right (correct, that is) in your article “The
    Ambivalent President” that appeared on page A-4 of today’s Contra Costa Times.

    Your “Not Yet” answer to the opening question was indeed “Charitable”.
    And we see no honest efforts to lead a bipartisan effort on anything!

    Jack P

    Posted by: Jack P | November 3rd, 2009 at 10:59 am

  • In order for Obama to succeed he must become the president of all Americans
    as he promised in his acceptance and inaugural speeches.

    Unfortunately, shortly after taking office he played only to far left
    partisan demands, leaving many independents and even republicans who voted
    for him with buyer’s remorse. The change offered so far, massive spend and
    tax, is not what most Americans were hoping for.

    Perhaps, today’s election results and prospects for 2010 will bring about a
    change in Obama’s politics to let him succeed much as it did for Bill
    Clinton after his first miserable two years.

    I have long held that our founding fathers designed our three branches of
    government to keep checks and balances on each other’s power. The experiment
    goes awry every time all are singing from the same hymnal, viz. Carter,
    Clinton’s first two years, GW Bushes first 6 years, and now Obama’s first.

    Erich K

    Posted by: Erich K. | November 3rd, 2009 at 11:00 am

  • Just a few things here about the article in todays merc. First of all, you
    made some good points……I may point out a few things here to make you

    “Barack Obama must succeed”

    Why? If he should, shouldn’t all people succeed? Why him? Oh, because he
    brings “hope” to young people and their investment in him…..

    So, what if Obama fails because his ideas are poor? what if he fails because
    he really isn’t this “Messiah”? What if he, like virtually all politicians
    these days, is ” All foam and no Beer”.

    Wouldn’t that teach the young people a valuable lesson? Don’t be conned by a
    smooth talking politician who will say anything to get elected? I think it
    would. Hope…is only a word…..the actions taken to make the “hope” a
    reality actually take work. Sound judgement and pragmatic thought help
    clarify what needs to be done in any situation.
    This… lacking….and how could it not be with no guiding
    principles…except a word.

    No, Obama should succeed if he has the right deas that WORK! So far, he has
    shown he is just another wanna be statesman. You have to look at his past to
    understand him……Chicago politics has been wracked with corruption for
    decades…That’s what he brings to the table….New tone in the beltway?
    yeah…..Riiiiiiggghhhhtt….look who he has surrounding him…Rahm
    Emanuel?The definition of a double talking sleaze. Look at his
    friends…pastor Wright…Ayres..Rezco….he has to lie about his
    relationships with these people…but, he did have them…the
    relationships….Do they not influence him in some way? Obama hides behind
    words because he has no real deeds to back him up. But….we knew that,
    didn’t we.

    I could go on, but I will finish with saying that many of us were not fooled
    by Obama….and were truly saddened that he became president. not because he
    is Black…… Because he doesn’t have the character……

    What is sadder still, is that we cannot seem to find anyone, man or
    woman…..who has the integrity and the vision…and the guts…to be a good
    leader. God help us all. Certainly our politicians won’t.

    R. Foster

    Posted by: R. Foster | November 3rd, 2009 at 12:45 pm

  • Where to begin Clint…

    1. I am not sure how the Iraq war vote is relevant to the discussion of Obama’s careful consideration of what to do in Afghanistan. Iraq was not the center of the problem it was always Afghanistan..Bush created the Iraq war and Hillary voted for it despite what I believe was her better instincts. Are you suggested what Cheney has ..that Obama is “dithering”. In my view he is being prudent and waiting until the election results, listening to the generals and will make a decision. It’s in our best interest that he weigh this carefully. I appreciate Obama’s approach and sincerely pray that he is guided well. This isn’t dithering …nothing can be more important than how we “spend” our soldiers efforts and lives.

    2. Health care. I have said this before. It’s OUR healthcare…get busy and make your views known to the legislators. This is not a spectator sport. Clinton couldn’t make it happen … we are close. Obama is not the Messiah he is a leader who is trying very hard to propel this forward. Yes he is a consensus guy…we knew that! For all nay sayers I can only hope you are all doing your part to contact your elected representatives.

    3. The financial crisis was years in the making going back both to Reagan and Clinton. We were on the precipice of diaster just 12 months ago. Who thought that in a short year we could be on the verge of some recovery?

    4. Obama is getting short shrift on very important issues facing our nation and the world. He has committed significant monies to the development of the Smart Grid…hugely important to our energy issues and for jobs. Additionally his commitment to stimulus monies for healthcare technology is exciting. These are critical issues that will affect both the future of this country’s standing in the world for both our overall health, environment and significantly jobs.

    I’d like to know any other President who has faced as many crisis’ as Obama who accomplished and solved them all in less than a year. Please do tell.

    Posted by: melinda maginn reilly | November 3rd, 2009 at 6:24 pm

  • Congratulations and thanks for writing this article. I
    think you’ve accurately seen “what’s wrong with this picture”.
    I am very disappointed in him today. For example; why wasn’t Barack
    Obama on the phone immediately to Joe Lieberman after he came out with
    his announcement of how he stood regarding the health care issue and
    publically blasting him for that. And why isn’t he in front of
    Congress as well as each individual member regularly, letting them
    know EXACTLY what he not only wants, but what he expects from them
    based on the promises he made to the American people when he was
    runnung for the Presidency?
    My question to you is, how can we make it very clear to Obama what we
    expect from him?
    Thank you for being here on behalf of “WE THE PEOPLE”

    Posted by: Joel S. | November 4th, 2009 at 2:23 pm

  • So why is Obama so “ambivalent”? Two big influences need more investigation:
    1. Purpose of Obama administration and its wealthy backers is to form a so-called center of power that diminishes the power of the nut-jobs in the GOP and also squelches the natural progressive sentiment of the masses on every specific issue from health reform to foreign wars.
    2. This is a Chicago Daley machine occupation of the White House. It is stunning how an unknown nonentity from Illinois rose so rapidly with so little accomlishment along the way.

    Posted by: Common guy | November 4th, 2009 at 4:09 pm

  • I do not understand your concern, you wanted someone with a track record of
    accomplishing nothing as president and now you are disappointed?

    He did not accomplishing anything in either of his elected offices. Did you
    think his staff or administration was going to get things done when he never
    was able to produce any legislation, significant or not, while as a member
    of the Illinois or US Senate?

    Much like Ross Perot got Clinton elected, great sound bites and TV presence
    combined with anti-Bush vote got Obama elected.

    I am independent voter, don’t like either party especially those who have
    party bosses who claim know what is best for me.


    PS I didn’t much like McCain but at least he could get things done, but I’ll
    bet if he had the majority numbers in Congress that Obama has and had made
    health care reform his number one policy it would have been done by now. We
    need sensible health care reform now not political posturing by both

    Posted by: Ernie | November 5th, 2009 at 9:19 am

  • Your article this week makes a lot of sense for the most part. You analyze the
    current situation very well.

    Unfortunately your opening sentence is downright frightening. “Barack Obama must
    succeed.” If he does, we are in for really big trouble. It will be the beginning
    of the end for our democracy.

    The best reason to hope that he does not succeed is to show the folly of electing a
    man who had no experience in governing or leading, who had absolutely no voting
    record and who obviously has no idea what he is doing or why.

    Another reason to hope he does not succeed is that his solutions are all geared
    toward socialism. His appointments of “czars” to run things autocratically is just
    plain scary. His insistence that things be done his way and done immediately shows
    his own autocratic ambitions. He apparently does not want any discussion. And his
    condemnation of anyone or any group that disagrees with him – say Fox News – shows
    his unwillingness to be open to disagreement or dialogue with those who have views
    that differ from his.

    So please. Let us hope that Barack Obama does NOT succeed!

    Thank you for listening to a viewpoint other than your own.

    Clare and Marilyn

    Posted by: Clare and Marilyn | November 5th, 2009 at 9:20 am

  • Every week I greatly enjoy your column (as well as Leonard Pitt’s) in
    the Valley Times. As you might guess, I would characterize myself as a
    moderate but leaning to the left on most issues. I need to respond to
    your column of 11/3.

    First, I would note that much criticism has been leveled at President
    Obama in that “He is doing too much” and “He is being overexposed and
    on tv too much”. In the few of these latter TV appearances I have
    seen, I have not found him to be ambivalent. To me he seemed to
    express his aims clearly.

    I think his approach to health care stems from Clinton’s experience
    where the plan was for the executive branch to completely design and
    force a bill through Congress. That abject failure led to a decision
    recommended by many (maybe even Clinton himself) to let Congress do it
    all and begin to immediately act on it in the first term. There was a
    very deliberate decision to put the ball in the court of the various
    Congressional committees. That process has now gone slowly, but there
    also seems to be steady progress to a final bill. Possibly Obama
    should have spoken out more forcibly at times, but I think he has
    wisely deferred to Congress in public and I have no doubt he has
    privately made many phone calls to key leaders on both sides.

    On Afghanistan, I would comment that campaign rhetoric has little
    bearing on a complex war involving two other countries that was
    neglected for over five years plus a complex enemy who can quickly
    change tactics. No candidate grasped this in the summer of 2008. I
    would urge you to extend more patience (6 months?) to his leadership
    in this area. I believe Obama, Gates and the generals are capable of
    researching and coming to a hopefully best course of action soon.
    There seems to be an American trait of impatience and belief that wars
    can be quickly won by superior equipment and personnel. That may be
    true but I fear it will always take more time and cost than calculated

    Where I most agree with you is in the area of financial regulation.
    The deregulation pushed in the late 90′s by Phil Gramm and accepted by
    most of Congress and Clinton led to the repeal of the 1930′s Glass-
    Steagall Act and the consequent high risk banking schemes. I feel
    that Obama should be forcefully visible in pushing for new significant
    regulation now. Maybe he really is doing too much and/or Congress is
    incapable of undertaking the regulation issue right now.

    At any rate, I hope you will be patient with our leadership. To
    repeat, I greatly value your weekly commentary, Keep up the excellent


    Ronald R

    Posted by: Ronald R. | November 5th, 2009 at 9:21 am

  • All of your columns are good. Well written with a common sense
    approach. I especially enjoyed of Novmber 3rd in the San jose Merc.
    Thanks again


    Posted by: Norm | November 5th, 2009 at 9:22 am

  • I am a new subscriber to the San Mateo Times, and have seen your column frequently.

    “The Ambivalent President” is rediculous and insulting to Americans. How dare you
    think that you need to stir problems in the minds of voters. Don’t forget how many
    of us wanted this President. Honestly, since he’s in office we have had more time to
    take care of our own lives, knowing that our President is doing his job.

    On the other hand, I’d like to ask, “why does eveything have to be done in a
    hurry?” OUr President THINKS before he acts, unlike the previous administration. Oh,
    by the way…I vote Independent. No need to bias my thoughts.

    How long does it take you to clean out the garage? Then think about what it must be
    like to clean up after George W. Bush, and the mess he left behind.

    Our country once had a superior credibility in the world. Look back at the
    eight-years of the Bush administration and note the slow detruction of everything we
    stood for.

    This time we’re doing it RIGHT, Mr. Reilly. No need to worry. Put your pen down and
    let nature take its course.

    Do you really believe that in nine-months President Obama (any President for that
    matter) would have it all done? Oh please! Do you have any idea of the
    insurmountable issues he faces? Do you have the remedies for all our problems, Mr.

    Instead of criticism, toss your computer and get busy; think about what you can do
    to help our nation, instead of bashing the best thing (Obama’s election) that has
    happened in the United States in a very long time.
    Mr. Reilly,
    How would you end war – fast?
    How would you fix a broken economy – fast?
    How bold do you think we should be with diplomacy? Did you like President Bush’s
    bold face? OMG! It only worked to make enemies world-wide.

    Look where we are now as compared to pre-Obama.

    I don’t know about you Mr. Reilly, but many of us lost sleep for the previous eight
    years with Bush. No more. I cannot tell you how much easier it is on my mind to have
    this man in our White House.

    Honestly, people like you need fixing…..and FAST.

    Lydia B

    Posted by: Lydia B. | November 5th, 2009 at 9:23 am

  • Thanks for writing the article…It’s too bad but Obama and most of Congress are owned by the financial interests. Nothing short of a revolution is going to change things..



    Posted by: Alan | November 5th, 2009 at 9:24 am

  • Thank you for writing such valuable commentaries which I always look
    forward to reading. The last one I saw, entitled “The Ambivalent President”
    certainly struck a chord (as many of your messages do) with me and I hope it will
    reach President Obama somehow or other. He needs to know that his advisors
    aren’t always correct in their assessment of the public and the world
    situation, especially that in Afghanistan.

    I look forward to many more comments from you.

    Joyce K

    Posted by: Joyce K | November 5th, 2009 at 3:06 pm

  • And so it was said…………….”The Democratic message was resurgent in 2008. Millions of new voters teamed up with Obama to reassert the government’s role in improving lives and protecting the public interest. A wave of optimism swept over the country and restored faith in America’s ability to renew itself domestically and regain moral standing internationally.”…………….unfortunately for our country these millions of new voters have never paid taxes! Hope the are happy with their decision in electing this idiot Obama. We are all screwed.

    Posted by: T Brown | November 6th, 2009 at 12:15 pm

  • Alan, Revolution? Perhaps. For those who supported Obama and voted for him, do we have his back? Are we participating? Great article link here on …Take it to the Streets…

    Posted by: melinda maginn | November 7th, 2009 at 9:38 am

  • WE have a health care bill passed!

    Posted by: melinda maginn | November 7th, 2009 at 8:49 pm

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