We are 4 1/2 years into Obama’s presidency, and that is ample time to see the differences and similarities between him and his predecessor. When I look at the whole, what sticks out to me first and foremost is simple competence in governing. And that stems from different beliefs. Obama believes government has a role to play in society and can do good things, so he appoints for the most part people who are experienced and proven professionals capable of doing the job they are appointed to do. A key example is of course is the response of FEMA to Hurricane Sandy. Obama had competent people in charge, and even Chris Christie had to give Obama props for doing what government is supposed to do.
That is a stark contrast to Bush and his FEMA department’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina. Simply saying the Arabian horse judge you put in charge of disaster relief is doing a heck of a job sadly does not make it so. It did, however, follow from Bush’s belief that government only gets in the way of the markets, of private enterprise, which he believes can do everything better than government can. He did not believe government actually had a role in society and so he appointed people with no experience or professionalism to do government jobs. If they failed, as they would, it simply confirmed his ideology that government is ineffective and unnecessary.
We can be very thankful that we have a president who actually believes in government. Obama got bin Laden, which Bush failed to do. Bush’s team lost 12 billion dollars of cash in Iraq that was never officially accounted for. Sure, those are cherry picked examples, yet they are telling. I have yet to see anywhere near as stark examples going the other way.
Of course, our government still works very poorly overall because Obama controls but a third of the government and is subject to the checks and balances we should all still be thankful for, even if they are currently broken. As long as the Republicans–who as a party seems to believe with Bush that government has no role to play–control congress, or enough of it to obstruct everything, they can keep the government seeming to be incompetent. In that, the Republicans are winning. That 7% approval rating congress has? Exactly where John Boehner wants it. Right where Grover Nordquist believes it should be. Almost small enough that we can just eliminate the whole kit and caboodle and get rid of government all together.
Thankfully, we have a president who does not agree. And because of the obstruction he faces, his sole memorable accomplishment may well turn out to be Obamacare. More and more it looks like it will work, will save money, will provide health care for millions of Americans who currently have none–the only such citizens in the developed world. And that scares the Republicans to death. A big government program (though hardly–I wish– a government take over of health care) that works for the people. In the eyes of the citizenry, Obamacare is a great danger to the Republicans non governing philosophy. Obamacare’s success alone will make Obama one of the great presidents of the last half century at least. (It is not an exaggeration to say their philosophy is to not govern; John Boehner said in an interview a couple weeks ago that Congress should be judged not by how many laws they pass, but by how many they repeal. So far in the current congress it’s about 13 passed and zero repealed.)
It isn’t too hard to make the case that Bush could have come much closer to success in destroying government had he been competent. The case has been made, and those who buy part of it will continue to buy part of it, and those who reject that outright won’t have their mind changed, so there is no point to rehashing it. There are, however, also things to be concerned about with too much competence. It means you get done what you set out to do. And when you are bought and paid for by Wall Street, whatever else good you do, you will also be beholden to Wall Street, and being competent, will successfully make sure their power holds solid. We see this in the Obama administration floating the name of Larry Summers as the next Fed Chair. Summers has proved very competent at ensuring that the banks will always get theirs no matter what they do and will not be held accountable no matter what they do. If he became the Fed Chair, we can be confident he could make sure that continued.
Obama’s competency also troubles me in that presidents never have and never will give up power that a previous president grabbed. So while Bush made the government more secret and started the spying on Americans, the people he appointed weren’t all that competent, which perhaps mitigated the damage it did to civil liberties and the American Constitution. Obama gave up none of those powers, and despite campaigning on transparency, has run a government at least if not more secret than Bush did. And Obama is doing it more competently. And that should give up pause.
When Obama tried to make it sound as though the spying program was transparent, it was the most disingenuous thing I’ve heard him say. And I cut him some slack. A president has more on his plate than any of us can imagine. Rhetorically it was perhaps his best option. And wanting to look at the program and what Americans know about it is a step in the right direction–of course it never would have happened without the leaks by Snowden. Obama can say he’s been wanting to have a national conversation about this for years all he wants. Nothing was stopping him. The fact remains that being a secret program, only he could have started that conversation, and he didn’t. To some extent is it the standard game–competent or not–of the president’s club. You won’t say anything bad about your predecessors and those who come after won’t hold you accountable for anything you may have done. And if Obama had started the conversation on his own, without the Snowden leak, it could only have been seen at least partly to be a criticism of how Bush did things. And if Obama has been adamant and consistent about one thing, it is that no wrong doing by a past administration will ever be mentioned or called into question.
Certainly I have had many criticisms of President Obama. And overall he remains a beacon of sanity and competence. And while the Republicans yet have power (despite getting a million fewer votes for House members in the last election), if they are to be stopped from completely dismantling government and our social safety net, it will largely be President Obama who stops them. And if he does that, Obamacare will not be his sole legacy; making at least part of the center hold will match that.