President Obama will address the nation tonight on his Afghanistan policy. (Photo: Barack Obama / Flickr)
An old friend of mine, a long-time Democrat and fully credentialed political wizard, wrote me the other day and asked a question I have been asking myself for several months now: what do you really think of Barack Obama? On the eve of the speech that will signal a significant escalation of the Afghanistan conflict, Mr. Obama and his first year in office have been much on my mind.
To be fully honest, I don't really know how I feel, which is weird, considering that I might be the only one in America without a fully coherent opinion on the man. A lot of people think he walks on water no matter what, a lot of liberals hate him for a variety of reasons to the point that they will declare him a failure after 10 months, and the far right ... well...let's just say they are pining deeply for the good old days of Jim Crow.
I remember where Bill Clinton was at this point in his presidency: getting rolled on gays in the military and the Travelgate scandal, in the process of screwing up health care reform so deeply and profoundly that its legacy requires Obama's current push, championing NAFTA which helped unleash two decades of economic catastrophe we have recently come to reap, and on the verge of presiding over a historic GOP sweep of Congress which became the straight-line 1-to-1 reason why the George W. Bush administration was so unutterably damaging.
So pound for pound, I can't say Obama's first ten months have been worse than the previous Democratic administration. In fact, a solid argument can be made that the man has done more good in his first term than any president since FDR.
Beyond that, I also know that he has taken office in a time of unprecedented challenges, and anyone who refuses to incorporate this simple truth into their opinion of his performance is someone who has made up their mind to dislike him no matter what. My opinion of his performance takes this deeply into account, because I have spent the last ten years chronicling on a daily basis the disasters he inherited:
* Two boondoggle wars;
* A shattered military;
* A melting economy;
* A collapsing environment;
* A raped set of civil liberties;
* A ravaged international reputation (and by the way, we've got no business thinking ourselves too good to bow after our performance on the international stage this last decade) . . .
. . . the list can and does go on, and on. This is not an excuse, of course, because he wanted the damned job so badly he ran for two years to get it. It is not a shield against criticism of the decisions he has to make. But it is important to remember that, due to this long list of catastrophes, it is all too certain that any decision he makes will have extraordinarily negative consequences. The man wakes up every day with a dozen Hobson's Choices to make, ones that will get people killed for sure and cost too much no matter what he decides.
I also never thought he was going to be any kind of progressive panacea. His party has a solid majority in Congress, but that majority is stuffed with a motley collection of the most craven bought-and-paid-for jellyfish in the history of modern politics, so in a lot of ways, having a majority made up of scoundrels and wastrels is no kind of advantage at all. His voting record in the Senate was not some sort of liberal light show - he was down the middle almost all the way - so I never expected him to come barnstorming in and immediately withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan while giving free and full health care to every man of woman born ... and even if he tried, the aforementioned bucketheads in Congress, and their unimaginably powerful financial backers, would have laughed him out of the room.
On a personal note, the fact that he immediately threw out those wretched restrictions on stem cell research has earned my eternal gratitude. Stem cell research could have saved the father of a friend who died of bone cancer, a disease we can treat today with that science. It could cure three friends of mine who suffer from diabetes. And it could cure my wife of the multiple sclerosis that could one day put her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
But I also think we need to get out of Iraq. I also think there is nothing to win in Afghanistan except ten more years of war and ten more years of big paydays for the defense industry. I think his push for health care reform has been an exercise in weakness that would make Lyndon Johnson mad enough to spit nails; can you imagine what that historically excellent arm-twister would say about a Democratic president allowing a Democratic Congress to slap him around like this? I think talk is cheap, and despite his very real achievements, and his very full plate, I cannot help but feel a deep sense of disappointment at how matters have unfolded to date.
He is going to get up and give a speech on Tuesday with flags fluttering in front of the cadet corps at West Point. In it, he is going to tell us that more American troops, tens of thousands of them, are being sent into harm's way once again in a war that has cost so much already and only promises to keep dragging on. Beyond the ramifications of the decision itself is the imagery; my memory is already filled to bursting with images of George W. Bush happily swaddling himself with the soldiers he was sending to die for a whole cavalcade of lies. Obama's use of the military in his upcoming speech cuts far too close to that particular bone. It was disgusting when Bush did it, and it is almost impossible to avoid feeling the same way now.
So my friend asked the question, and I didn't really have an answer. I have all the facts, and a whole pallet of opinions, but nothing about this president and these times fits into any context I can wrap my hands around. He is Oz the Great and Terrible to me in this brave new world. All I know is I will be watching his speech on Tuesday very closely with feelings of dread and hope roiling around in my heart and my head. I honestly don't know what else to say.