After just a year in office, President Obama has netted enough legislative victories to qualify him as the most successful commander in chief in U.S. history.
Despite ushering in an avalanche of reforms – from domestic economic recovery initiatives to international agreements toward peace – the Obama administration is struggling to fight through the gamut of obstructionist tactics by his political opposition, overtly racist actions by those wanting to see the nation’s first Black president fail and deflated enthusiasm among his once-fervent supporters.
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Recent poll numbers show that there is considerably less excitement for an Obama presidency than there was a year ago. Whereas a number of polls showed that more than two-thirds of Americans approved of the job that Obama was doing in the first month of his presidency, fewer than half have the same feeling today.
So why such a dramatic shift in attitudes, despite Obama’s undeniable work ethic, his astounding record of accomplishment and the fact that his eloquent, professional manner is a national relief after eight years of his bumbling, inarticulate and divisive predecessor?
The reason is twofold.
Firstly, there are many people who never wanted to see Obama succeed – and they were somewhat successful in their aim to paint him as un-American and anti-American. They included right-wing commentators, who didn’t hide their desire to see Obama “fail,” and some fundamentalist evangelical ministers, who even prayed from their pulpits that God would strike Obama dead. With audiences in the millions, these very public figures helped spawn such groups as the “birthers” and “tea-baggers.” The former continued to cast the president as a Kenyan-born Muslim extremist long after Obama’s birth certificate showed that he was born in Hawaii and his 20-year membership at a Chicago Christian church proved he was no Muslim. Members of TeaParty.org, named after the American colonists who in 1773 dumped tea in Boston Harbor to protest their lack of government representation, turned out in force at a number of anti-Obama rallies across the United States. Even the former vice president, Dick Cheney, got into the fray, telling the nation – in an unseemly post-administration media tour – that Obama is making America increasingly unsafe amid a growing Islamic terrorist threat.
Secondly, many of those who poured to the polls to vote for Obama are now frustrated because they don’t believe he’s been aggressive enough in repealing the policies of his predecessor. They include African Americans, young people, anti-war activists, advocates for the environment, and a wide coalition of ardent supporters. They also include traditional non-voters, Independents and disheartened Republicans who were hungry for change.
The GOP argues that Obama has been closed to Republican ideas and is governing from the far left. Ironically, many of Obama’s rapidly fizzling supporters argue that the president has spent too much time reaching out to Republicans, who they say will never join forces to successfully implement a progressive political agenda, particularly since their main goal is to win back the White House. They point to health care and the president’s Afghanistan policy as examples. With health care, many progressives initially were adamant about a public option, a government-funded, less-expensive alternative to that offered by insurance firms, but eventually capitulated as the president stressed the importance of reeling in moderate lawmakers from both parties.
On his decision to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, many Democratic faithfuls were outraged. Even though Obama was making good on his promise to bring troops home from Iraq, liberal supporters of the president argued that the redeployment could not be justified at a time when America drastically needs money for jobs and economic relief at home. As for his plan to bail out big banks and big corporations, those too were viewed as tantamount to Republican tax breaks for wealthy Americans in the wake of middle-class suffering. Many African Americans, who believed that an Obama administration would mean immediate jobs and economic relief, have also begun to grumble. Recently, Congressional Black Caucus members, feeling the growing angst from their constituents, held up their support for the president’s proposal on banking regulations until he included several billion dollars for jobs.
But all the attention to seemingly growing disillusionment distracts from the amazing tale of what President Obama has been able to accomplish after just a year in office.
While much of the media attention is now focused on Obama’s push for health care reform – understandable, given the recent election in Massachusetts and the fact that it has gotten further than any other plan for national insurance coverage in history – there are many other major accomplishments by this administration, which is still in its infancy.
So far, Obama has appointed the first Latina to the U.S. Supreme Court; signed into law the expansion of children's health insurance; enacted the "Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act," giving women the ability to sue employers who discriminate based on gender; gained congressional approval on the largest economic stimulus bill in history; provided more money for education than any administration in history; repealed Bush’s restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research; approved thousands of highway projects in 50 states, designed to create hundreds of thousands of jobs; appropriated $19 billion in the stimulus package to help implement an innovative, cost-saving, state-of-the-art electronic medical record system; established a $2,500 tax credit to help offset the cost of tuition (among other expenses) for those seeking a college education; provided financial assistance to the staggering automobile industry while steering manufacturers toward more eco-friendly, cost-effective automobiles; provided aid for America's struggling cities through the administration’s newly developed Office of Urban Policy; ordered the closing of Guantanamo Bay military detention facility and abolished torture techniques; set a timetable for bringing home U.S. combat forces from Iraq; reached out to leaders in Europe, Turkey, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Muslim world in an attempt to reverse the isolationist, belligerent tone of the Bush administration; signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, designed to protect more than 2 million acres of wilderness, thousands of miles of rivers and numerous parks; and lifted travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban Americans who seek to visit the island more frequently or to send more U.S. currency to their families.
With such an astonishing record of success, it’s no wonder that Obama’s political foes have worked so hard to see him “fail,” as Republican shock jock Rush Limbaugh prayed, and for his health care proposal to become his “Waterloo,” as South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint begged last summer. "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him," he said. Waterloo, of course, is a reference to French Emperor Napoleon's devastating defeat by Britain’s Duke of Wellington in 1815.
Lawmakers and others in the public eye have been unabashed in their disdain for Obama. Take the “You Lie!” barb South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson hurled at the president during his State of the Union address. And the ocean of racially offensive placards – showing Obama as a “niggar” [sic], Nazi, clown and bone-in-the-nose African native – at recent tea-bagger rallies, heavily attended by Republican congressmen. Former President Carter, known for his outspokenness, has attributed much of the growing White dissension to racism.
The FBI, Secret Service, U.S. Justice Department and a number of civil rights organizations report a marked increase in threats to the president and a proliferation of White-supremacist hate groups. Just this week, a 19-year-old Arkansas man, Paul Schlesselman, pleaded guilty to planning to shoot to death a schoolyard full of African-American children in Memphis before assassinating President Obama. His alleged accomplice, Daniel Cowart, 18, denies being involved.
But, given the history of the United States, the rise in racially divisive language and actions are no surprise.
During another politically progressive period – the Reconstruction Era that immediately followed the Civil War – the then-liberal Republican Congress enacted laws and Constitutional amendments designed to empower the federal government to enforce equal rights, and to give newly freed slaves the right to vote and hold office. But angry, recalcitrant Whites not only overthrew the series of unprecedented social, economic and political reforms, they enforced reestablished segregation via lynchings and government-sanctioned mob justice. It took almost another century to outlaw those practices.
The question now is whether we will get an opportunity to see how effective President Obama can be in trying to resolve the biggest social, economic and political mess in U.S. history or will modern-day conservative Republicans succeed in once again creating the kind of divisions that will take another 100 years to overcome.
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