News & Views from 465 California Street

Obama Parachutes In

Clint Reilly

President Obama wields words the way Zorro flashed his sword.  But how many times can a president credibly orate his way out of crises which his administration was elected to solve or avoid altogether?

As Frank Rich recently observed in the New York Times, Obama has made a habit of delivering eloquent speeches at moments of intense political crisis. He enters the fray after the situation has hit fever pitch, then attacks with sharp barbs and inspiring prose. Usually, it’s just what the doctor ordered.

But just like antibiotics, political ploys grow ineffective with overuse.  Early in his first term, Obama runs the risk that too many speeches may immunize the public against his primary weapon.

The past two weeks brought us two more rousing Obama speeches: a health care address to a joint session of Congress, and a speech in New York detailing his plan to reform Wall Street.

The health care speech followed a tumultuous summer of raucous town hall meetings and a frenzied misinformation campaign by the right-wing chattering class bent on killing health care reform at any cost.

The Wall Street address came one day before Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced that the recession that has wracked the nation for 18 months is now technically over.

The president laid out his health care reform agenda to both houses of Congress effectively. The speech itself wasn’t the problem; it was the vacuum of leadership that led up to it.

While the health care debate raged over the summer, the components of a White House plan were curiously absent from the discussion. Obama had his reasons for allowing various committees of the House and Senate to compose their own bills. Clinton administration veterans advising Obama were determined not to repeat Hillary Clinton’s misstep by excluding congressional heavyweights.

But Obama’s months of tepid rhetoric were no match for organized attacks generated by Republicans desperate for an issue, conservative talk show hosts who realized that they had drawn blood, and a well-funded health care lobby fighting for survival.

Obama seems to lack the stomach for confrontation he will need to bring about the change he promised. His primary public activity on health care during a long hot summer was to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and insurers for modest cost savings that pale in the face of windfall profits. Frankly, Obama seems too comfortable with the role of negotiator-in-chief who never has to take a stand in advance.

Should we believe that Obama has no bottom line?

What about the critical issue of reforming our financial system? Obama’s carefully orchestrated speech on Wall Street last week was another barn burner. He laid out a tough program for curbing systemic risk and preventing future meltdowns while a virtual rogues gallery of financial industry titans shifted uncomfortably in their seats. The presidential scolding elicited only tepid applause, belying Wall Street’s lack of enthusiasm for reform.

The most economically terrifying year since the Depression has largely been squandered.

Franklin Roosevelt passed the Emergency Banking Act on his second day in office and the Glass-Steagall Act (which established the FDIC and restored sanity and regulation to the financial system) less than four months into his first term. During nine months in office, Obama has done almost nothing to overhaul the sick system that plunged us into an economic nightmare. The same regulatory structure that allowed last year’s massive failures remains in place more than a year after our financial system teetered on collapse.

The moment for reform may well have been lost. As the economic crisis continues to dissipate, factions in Congress are bickering over which special interest to protect rather than how to protect the public interest. Their attention is now divided among the vitriolic health care debate, increasing violence in Afghanistan, mounting job losses and their own mid-term elections on the horizon.

Obama seems to have forgotten Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly but carry a big stick.”

Has he not learned that conflict often makes peace possible? A leader must broaden the bounds of the possible by aggressively educating people and forcefully defending strong positions.

Zorro, Batman, Spiderman and Superman can pull off the eleventh-hour rescue. But a president needs to engage from day one.

Comments (9)

  • “Has he not learned that conflict often makes peace possible? A leader must broaden the bounds of the possible by aggressively educating people and forcefully defending strong positions.”

    I think this is exactly what he’s doing. We will see health reform and Obama’s presidency will be responsible. I highly recommend reading the Death of Conservatism. I believe Obama’s style is perfectly tuned to where we are at this pivotal moment in our history.

    Time will tell who is right.

    Posted by: melinda maginn | September 18th, 2009 at 9:02 pm

  • I dearly love to read what you write and appreciate the inclusion of your pieces in the Contra Costa Times. “Obama Parachutes In” was especially on-point. But it’s clear to me, that as someone who voted for Obama, I should have expected some novice behaviors once he was in office. This is no excuse for his “late leadership” on health reform, and in other areas you mentioned.

    I agree that his advisers wished to avoid the barriers the Clintons faced 16 years ago and that created the new problem. They have no excuse for being novices. They assumed they were in control. All of them negotiated away some of the most important changes when they gave bargaining chips over to pharmaceutical, medical device, and insurance companies before any balanced public testimony happened.

    The advisers have hidden agendas orchestrated by ill-informed parties, and they failed to do their homework on who they needed to succeed. Their strategy was sophomoric. There was no buy-in from health reformists who have helped craft better state legislation than the present options from the House and Senator Bacaus.

    The administration advisors excluded public input from some of the longest organized reformers, single payer advocates. Bacaus started braying about single payer off the table before any hearings even occurred. It may not be the time for single payer (Medicare for All), but by excluding their major speakers from summer town hall panels, the Obama advisers managed to alienate some of the best networks and educators to explain health reform. Hence, the mess this administration has created that could kill health reform in its cradle. That spells the same outcome as for the Clintons: no change.

    Lack of upfront Obama leadership may be the pattern a novice President chooses. But as you pointed out, his change legacy will be far less then it could have been.

    We have what we put into office. Will he be a one term President?

    Jan H.

    Posted by: Jan H. | September 22nd, 2009 at 10:47 am

  • He is speechless without his teleprompters. Note the hem and haw and
    lack of word continuity when he has a normal conversation.

    Posted by: Dick | September 22nd, 2009 at 10:47 am

  • Dear Clint:

    For once I am in complete agreement with your statement.

    If this president would have merged his inspiring rhetoric with commensurate action and real leadership he could have been much farther along in bringing the elusive change he campaigned for.

    I believe his trouble began when he let Nancy Pelosi define and dictate the so-called stimulus bill. A missed the opportunity to lead and direct, instead he urged passage of basically a cat-in-a-bag that nobody even read.

    Next up comes his words of wanting to look forward, yet abdicating decision on CIA investigations to his AG. Have his words credibility when even his own appointees don’t heed them or is this a tactic by design? Well, if it is it sure isn’t working.

    The healthcare bill or bills or who knows what is the real proposal was following the same MO as the stimulus, pass it before details are known, but mercifully failed as skepticism and criticism arose even among Democrats.

    By now his words begin to ring hollow, even untrue, and approval is peeling away giving room for doubt. Doubt, whether he is truly in command or a product of his handlers. There are truly interesting characters in the inner circle of this administration.

    I did not vote for Obama, partly because I feared that a one-party government, one that is veto-proof no less, would be contrary to the Founders’ intent of checks and balances. The Bush administration and first two years of Clinton demonstrated this. Upon his acceptance speech, however, I became one of the 70% supporters.

    I still like the man, but have great doubts since about his leadership.

    Erich K

    Posted by: Erich K. | September 22nd, 2009 at 10:48 am

  • Your observation on the Obama factor is on point. He is an adorable President but is not leading. Instead he is being lead by unions—tariff on tires from China; trial lawyers—no tort relief; and the radical left—Acorn and scrap the missile defense shield and on and on. Now he tells the world on the Stephanopolous show that the health care tax is not a tax but a fee; yet Congress, both houses, have written in their bills and have publicly stated it is a tax because the IRS will collect it.

    I think you’re right. He has lost his opportunity.

    Posted by: Hank R. | September 22nd, 2009 at 12:01 pm

  • I enjoy your column and happen to be reading Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex
    when your latest arrived. Chapter 13 is titled The Big Stick and covers
    his diplomatic relations with Germany regarding Venezuela in accord with
    the Monroe Doctrine. On page 185 Morris describes Roosevelt’s “…latest
    exercise routine, ‘singlesticks’. Every evening in the residence, he and
    Leonard Wood donned padded helmets and chest protectors and beat each
    other like carpets.”

    The singlesticks sport leads into: “Speak softly and carry a big stick
    was a West African proverb Roosevelt had tried out once, as Vice
    President, and memorized as a personal mantra. Perhaps the current
    situation would enable him to test its effectiveness, starting with the
    soft speech. ‘If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big
    stick will not save him from trouble; but neither will speaking softly
    avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power’”.


    Posted by: Al | September 22nd, 2009 at 12:04 pm

  • Mr. Reilly,I feel so much better when I read opinions such as yours with regards to Obama and the many reasons for current unrest of America. I also take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the SJ Mercury for printing such a wide variety of opinions unlike the SF Chronicle- the reason for my switching papers following the election.

    What I see as some of the major problems with his approach to being president include the lack of ability to envision what the fallout would be of his actions. The fact is that America at large can see that while his ideas may sound good, they are idealistic in the extreme and a leader needs to come prepared with the end result in mind; i.e. how it will impact America in the near and longer term. The other issue is that while he may have made promises during the election speeches, his assumption that he could whip every promise into a real accomplishment the first year was naive and a huge deficit to his presidency. Focus and preparedness have been lacking and his dictatorial attitude when things don’t go his way are just not working.

    I agree with what you have written and am grateful to know that free press still remains!

    Posted by: Jan | September 22nd, 2009 at 2:16 pm

  • “Walk softly and carry a big stick” in the Afghanistan war? Isn’t
    that what Obama is doing–walking carefully? “Tepid rhetoric!” Aren’t
    they the same? Or you just want the “big stick?” How much larger a
    “stick” to beat up on a people who do NOT want our democracy? The
    Brits, Russians, etc gave up on being able to call of their efforts a:
    “Conflict that made peace possible!” More spilled blood and money
    for a lost cause? Not fair for those who don’t have to spill it!!
    Bring back the draft, this futile war will be over in a hurry!
    Repubs, don’t be such sore losers. Give Obama a break to see what he
    can accomplish!

    Posted by: Gisela | September 23rd, 2009 at 3:35 pm

  • Liberals have got to get it together. We elected Obama, and whether or not you agree with his management style is not nearly as important as pushing through our agenda. At hand is the health care plan and the preservation of the Public Option. It’s in the hands of Congress and here in California we must push Dianne Feinstein to unequivocally support it. Clint, given your relationship…push her. We all can help…make your voice heard. Bombard her office.

    Liberals need to stop wringing their hands over Obama’s style and get to work helping him pass legislation. That means getting to your elected representatives.

    Posted by: melinda maginn | September 27th, 2009 at 9:25 am

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