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Obama: one year on

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Friday, 6 November 2009

"Obama this, Obama that, where's Obama at?"* Or in other words, what does Barack Obama believe in and how has he performed since being elected the president of the United States one year ago? Overall President Obama is doing a good job; however, he has met neither the lofty expectations of his supporters nor the soaring ideals of his own campaign rhetoric.

Obama claims that "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America" but his words are not backed up by the opinion polls. They show his job approval rating in the US at around 53% which clearly means many conservative Americans have not been won over by Obama's charm or his policies. This is hardly surprising as America has been a deeply divided political nation since the 2000 elections. This divide was unlikely to breakdown within one year.

For American politics to swing to the Left, eight to twelve years of Democrat-controlled politics will be required. However, there seems a good chance that progressives in America will squander this post-Bush opportunity simply because they lack a compelling or coherent set of ideas to generate policies from.


A comparison between 2009 and 1981 makes the point: Reagan, for all of his weaknesses, came into office with a much more coherent and well formulated set of ideas than Obama. These ideas, developed by conservative supporters, helped strongly guide Reagan's policy agenda. Liberalism (the main left-of-centre ideology in the US) is back after a couple of wretched decades but not on the merit of its own sound policy arguments. Instead it has arrived largely by default. This liberal intellectual weakness is reflected in the ideas and arguments outlined by Obama in his two memoirs.

The arguments he makes are beautifully written and full of empathy but they are equally full of eloquent, pragmatic and often empty platitudes. Many would disagree with this view including esteemed commentators such as the Washington Post's E. J. Dionne and the New York Times' David Brooks. Both have regularly praised Obama's pragmatism as his point of difference which makes him both refreshing and likely to achieve much in Washington DC.

For me the weakness in this argument comes from the contradictions between Obama's policy pragmatism and his soaring rhetoric. Obama's words are likely to create expectations that can only be fulfilled through ambitious policy outcomes.  Obama is not alone in grappling with the contradiction between lofty goals and more mundane policy reality – it is a problem for most American leaders given the nature of the American political system where the president's proposals must be legislated by Congress.

Can this argument about a lack of substance within Obama's beliefs be tested? The obvious starting point is the current American health care debate which is essentially about providing coverage for the 47 million or so Americans without private or government-funded health coverage. Neither Obama nor other leading Democrats have made the case for the plight of the uninsured on ideological grounds. They have not argued for reform based on liberal social justice values or on advocacy for the working poor (probably the biggest group of uninsured Americans).

Instead they have focused on the minutia of individual cases such as people with prior medical conditions (no matter how minor) who cannot receive affordable coverage or cases about very sick people (like Obama's own mother) being offered only partial treatment because their insurance policies have exclusionary clauses in them. While these cases are compelling, using them rather than a belief in, say, universal health as the impetus for change offers no sense of a set of concrete beliefs behind the reform of the health care system.  

Another example of where Obama has failed to deliver a coherent set of ideas is on the issue of health costs. It is oft-quoted that America spends around 17 per cent of its GDP on health. Meanwhile in Canada, which enjoys universal health care, the figure is almost half, at 9 per cent. Coupled with the mounting cost of Social Security (retiree, survivor and disabled benefits), this raises serious concerns about the inefficiencies of the American economy compared to other nations and the burden such inefficiencies will add to America's already mountainous national debt.


George W. Bush never did get around to addressing social security reform, claimed to be his most important policy aim when he ran for president in 2000. His idea was to undertake a privatisation of Social Security, which if it had occurred would possibly have been overly risky and flawed. Nonetheless at least he put a policy position forward.  Obama's plans on this important policy front are less clear and I have seen few widely circulated liberal policy papers or books on this important topic.

Environmental policy would be, you think, a shoe in for the liberals who could easily paint the conservatives as the head in the sand men and women of yesterday. That's what a liberal warrior like Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have done. Obama has again been too timid on this issue, this time at a global level. In his address to the Congress in February 2009 he stated there is a need to "save our planet from the ravages of climate change" and his UN address in September also contained fine and urgent words.

But if he fails to attend the Copenhagen Climate Change conference in December it will be rightly assumed that there is neither a US plan to put to the world nor does Obama want to expend his shrinking political capital on this issue (at this time at least).

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This article was first published on the ABC's Unleashed on November 4, 2009

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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