One year on; why Obama needs to get moving

So. Twelve months later does the world still think Barack Obama is the messiah?

Well, no. Choose from any of the following – prevaricating over whether to send more troops into Afghanistan, the whole healthcare kerfuffle, the disappointing poll results in Virginia and New Jersey last week, the fact that he hasn’t solved the Middle East conflict or saved the planet from global warming – you name it, Obama hasn’t done it.

‘Yes We Can’ has become the rather less marketable, ‘yes, maybe, probably not’.

There’s nothing harder to beat than high expectations, and if November 2008 dealt Obama a resounding win, it also gave him a lot to live up to. Speculation aside, I don’t think that the off-season elections can really be seen to have taken the temperature of the Obama presidency. Far more interesting will be the votes next November in the mid-terms, when a third of the Senate and all of the House will be going to the polls. Remember 2006, when Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats swept to victory? Turned out to be a fairly good reading of America’s mood.

Likewise, that Obama hasn’t actually yet achieved the exhaustive list of promises he proffered in his campaign is hardly surprising, and the yet in that sentence should not be ignored.  Still, perhaps as a result of having a fixed term presidency, the media tends to view the first eighteen months as the only time a president will actually achieve anything, before he has to refocus his energies on re-election.

But is that really the reality? Well, history suggests it very well could be.

Consider what can probably be seen as the two most important examples of major domestic change in America over the last century; Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society.

In his first 100 days FDR put his foot down on the path to restoring economic viability with the Emergency Banking Act, as well as instating many of his notorious Alphabet Agencies, including the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

Likewise, Johnson, catapulted into office after JFK was assassinated, had introduced by the following August several social welfare measures including the Economic Opportunity Act. In July 1964, after 75 days debate, segregation was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act. And the huge array of key domestic legislation that LBJ is remembered for (when he is remembered at all for his successes), all took place in the first session of Congress of 1965, just after he had been elected as president with a vast majority.

So too, with foreign policy. Harry Truman gave the go-ahead to drop the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just months after assuming office and so ended the Pacific leg of the second World War.

Not that it was all smooth sailing from then on. With three and a bit more terms in charge, FDR did plenty more, doing battle with the Supreme Court and the Nazis to name but a few of his achievements. For LBJ it was a downward spiral into Vietnam, urban rioting and all manner of other disasters.  For Truman, it was the narrowest of narrow victories in 1948.

But however you look at the rest of their presidential runs, the first year or so, the honeymoon period, was pretty darn important.

 Conversely, bad things also happened in the first year or so to some presidents, and they stuck. Whether Ford really recovered from pardoning Nixon is debatable – but it certainly didn’t win him enough support to win reelection. Everyone’s favourite peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, spent his first year antagonizing half the Democrats inside the beltway and trying to pass an unprecedented amount of legislation, which didn’t win him any favours. His role in brokering the Camp David Accords in 1978 didn’t keep him in office in 1980, when Ted Kennedy and then Ronald Reagan campaigned on an ‘anyone but Carter’ platform. 

George Bush senior promised ‘no new taxes’ in his election campaign, and eighteen months later was embroiled in a bitter row with the Democrats that led to a tax raise and helped Clinton push him out of office in 1992. Triumph in the Gulf War in 1991 as his presidency was entering its third year couldn’t help him keep power.

So does the first year really define the presidency from then on?  Not really, when you look back from the vantage point of history.

Truman’s legacy is as much successes like the Marshall Plan, or disasters like his firing of popular wartime hero General MacArthur during the Korean war. No matter LBJ’s early successes, his name is synonymous with Vietnam. Regardless of his first year in office, Nixon’s will be the Watergate presidency.

But isn’t in interesting that the presidents who were markedly capable in their first eighteen months, the ones who fulfilled their campaign promises and made what must have been the tough calls, were the ones the voters offered a second term.

FDR, Truman, LBJ (a stretch since he only won the one election, but it was still technically two different terms), all got the thumbs up for four more years. Whatever we think of George W Bush, his decisive action going into Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 had to play a part in his reelection.   

And look at the ones who didn’t excel from early. Since the 1940s, when the presidency took the shape it has today, Ford, Carter and George H W Bush have been the only single term presidents. See a pattern?

This is all generalization and represents a very simplistic analysis of these presidencies and the relevant elections. Reagan, who regualrly scores highly in popularity polls, had notable successes like his role in the end of the Cold War much later, while his first two years were not marked by many Reaganomic wonders. Equally, Clinton screwed up any number of times in his first few years in office (although the midterms of 1944 saw massive Republican gain under the auspices of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, and Gingrich has been tipped as a possible 2012 candidate.)

Still, while its to early to call time on the Obama legacy, the lessons of history do beg the question; when is Obama going to get moving and follow up on his pledges.

Because the clock is ticking on the Obama Presidency. By this count, he only has another nine months.

Revolutionary expectations

Article in TIME mag on Chinese politics looking at the country 60 years after the communist victory. The author, an academic named David Shambaugh, gave a wonderful phrase ‘the revolution of rising expectations’ to describe China’s progression towards economic liberalisation and modernity.

That China transformed itself when its people decided they wanted more is hardly a radical contention, but I’d argue that today expectation, rather than ideology, is what most revolutions are about.

Because especially in the UK, twenty first century political life, is rarely about major transition. The most left wing of Labour, the furthest to the right of the Conservatives, everyone is fighting for the same thing, more or less. Today in British politics, it’s not what one MP plans to do, but how much more he plans to do than his rival. Less Yes We Can, more Yes We Can Do Better.

China’s rising expectation of course led to some very real and very crucial change. But today in British politics, I wonder how beneficial our rising expectation really is and whether we expect to much.

We expect our public figures to be everything; celebrity, intellectual, adversarial power broker and consensus maker. They have to do everything for everyone, be all things to all people. The problem is that meeting all these expectations is time-consuming work and often a distraction from the real business of running the country.

Our government is castigated for making promises they cannot keep, but they make them because their electorate demands a solution ‘now’, even when ‘now’ isn’t really possible.

Meanwhile, to cater to rising expectations the opposition makes promises all across the board, never mind how patently contradictory they are, as the Lib Dems have demonstrated fabulously this week by calling for both spending cuts and the so-called ‘mansion tax’.

Wanting more materially has to be seen as one root of the credit crunch; likewise, wanting a quick fix cure to it has just created mass dissatisfaction. Everyone expects more of Brown and his government.

Our politicians should aim high and raise their own expectations. The electorate must be there to push them, to challenge them to better serve. But, especially when compared with China’s recent history, we have it pretty good with British politics. Things can be better, but they could also be a whole lot worse; Cameron could be in charge. Maybe we need to level our high expectations a tad.

After all, as my Nana would always point out, we can’t always get what we want.