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Something Obama is not

Gary Caruso | Friday, February 26, 2010

A year into Barack Obama’s presidency, critics continually attempt to define him as a liberal out-of-control, tax-hiking, big-government, deficit-spending Socialist. Throughout the year, conservative commentator Glenn Beck called the president a racist. Last week, conservative entertainer Rush Limbaugh characterized health care initiatives as reparations, invoking coded racist language that appeals to certain haters in our American society. The Fox network cable programs are peppered with insinuations and outright charges that Obama is a socialist whose goal is to end our free market way of life as we know it. Yet, upon closer examination, the president has a more measured and reasoned style of governing than his senate voting record.
While this column was written while the president hosted his six-hour transparent health care summit with congressional leaders, astute political observers could have predicted Obama’s approach. The Obama style of governing is not liberal. In fact, the Liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Obama’s core support against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential primary season, remains disappointed in Obama’s increase of troops in Afghanistan. They are disgruntled because the Guantanamo Bay prison facility has yet to be closed. They seethe at Obama’s casualness regarding the health care public option, along with his unyielding reach for bipartisan support rather than to steamroll the legislation like George W. Bush and a Republican controlled congress did for their legislative agenda.
Obama’s call for deficit reduction, now hypocritically and disingenuously opposed by seven Republican champions and cosponsors in the senate who until Obama’s election had made deficit reduction a Republican mantra, is not traditionally a liberal initiative. Regardless of how we define attacks on our homeland — terrorism or criminal violations — Obama’s policy has resulted in capturing more high-level operatives in a more compressed timeline in Afghanistan than Bush policy. Also in one year, Obama policy matches Bush policy in arresting those bent on attacking our homeland as well as obtaining actionable intelligence from those criminals, albeit illegal enhanced interrogation techniques. War and security have never been traditionally liberal strengths either — until Obama.
In 1994, the Public Broadcasting System aired an American Experience program, a five hour biographical documentary examining Franklin D. Roosevelt’s life. Last week’s re-airing eerily accentuated the parallels and similarities between conditions as FDR and Obama entered office, along with how similar the nation’s mood stood at the end of both men’s first year in office. While FDR’s first hundred days were sweepingly unprecedented in dramatically addressing the Great Depression, Americans grumbled by year’s end that change had not come as quickly as they expected. Unemployment was still at record levels despite millions returning to work. The documentary included a 1934 snippet of the Republican National Committee Chairman advocating “less taxes, smaller government and an end to the wasteful government deficit spending that is not creating jobs.” Yet, despite an impatient American public and Republican calls for less government a quarter of the way through his first term, the next scene quoted people explaining why they overwhelmingly voted for FDR’s first reelection bid.
Something Obama lacks is FDR’s disarmingly robust and warmly infectious laugh. Obama’s calm professorial demeanor is an asset in itself, but at times can be so cool that he does not always convey the FDR grandfatherly assurance or joviality. Both men could effectively deliver these FDR lines, “It was this administration which saved the system of private profit and free enterprise after it had been dragged to the brink of ruin. The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith…the great public is interested more in government than in politics… [Party labels do not matter as long as politicians do] the big job that their times demanded to be done.”
But imagine Obama, a year into his presidency, saying this FDR quote on the need to sacrifice principles for higher purposes, “If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, [the Southern Democrats] will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing.” This practical approach is one of the typically hard choices all presidents must weigh. Addressing health care reform now is such a choice Obama believes outweighs marching in step with liberals in support of the health care public option, especially if costs and deficits can be reduced anyway. For as FDR further remarked, “Above all, try something…When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.”
History is least objective when we sit square in the middle as events unfold. With historical FDR/Obama similarities also come totally unique and unrelated circumstances. Scholars will evaluate and judge well after the fact. Few remain in Washington who can describe the Kennedy presidency’s Camelot aura. Years from now, maybe Obama’s first year will rival the JFK aura or FDR impact — historians have yet to comment. Regardless, FDR summed up political pitfalls best when he said, “I think we consider too much the good luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm.”

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.