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Settling for Second Best
By Fay Funk
It is 2014, and there are only two years left of Barack Obama’s second presidential term. Osama bin Laden is dead and health care reform has gone into effect, and yet our country feels largely the same, with no massive changes really occurring. So the question remains: What should Obama do now?
The Obama presidency has been disappointing. Like many people, I got swept up in the hope and change rhetoric, and really believed that Barack Obama could make this country a better place. Maybe that makes our nation’s current state extra disappointing, but I don’t think I’m being too hard on Obama when I say he is a lackluster president. He is not the worst president ever, but he is far from the best. His only major accomplishment so far has been health care reform, and even without the fiasco of the website and technical difficulties the law does not even get close to the sweeping change in health care this country needs. With such passionate opposition from the Republican Party the Affordable Care Act was never going be as extensive as it needed to be, but it could have been much better executed than it was. And that is, after all, the job of the executive branch, to execute the law.
While trying to identify why Obama fell so short my sister pointed out something interesting. Barack Obama is just too smart to be president. He is an academic, and while he can unpack and analyze the law like no other and I’m sure his Constitutional Law class at the University of Chicago was life-changing, those skills do not always translate into good leadership. Knowing in theory how politics should work is a far cry from the combination of shrewd practicality and finesse it takes to be an effective president.
So I think Matt Miller’s Consensus Project idea, outlined in his article in The Washington Post called “What Obama Should Do Now,” has legs. Given the gridlock in Congress right now, there is little chance that Obama can accomplish anything meaningful. So Obama can either rely on symbolic gestures and minor executive action, the default option, or he can launch a massive educational campaign to change public opinion on a grand scale so that his successor will have a better chance of creating meaningful change. Obama would essentially become a TV host.
It seems like a good idea. The Consensus Project plays to Obama’s strengths as an educator and an orator, and as the president he has an unparalleled platform. Rather than change public opinion, which can be very difficult to do, Obama’s educational campaign might actually give a large number of Americans an opinion, something that is lacking in the United States.
Most Americans are uninformed about current events. This can be hard for me and probably many people reading this article to remember. Most Americans do not know what is going on in this country on a fairly basic level. It’s hard to believe in an era where all the information in the world is available at the click of a button that anyone can lack basic information, but it’s true. Most people regardless of their level of informedness know who the President of the United States is, so Obama is in a good position to create opinions, especially if he acts on a grassroots level, which is how he started his presidential campaign in the first place.
The idea reminds me of the Fireside Chats given by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression. These simple and informal radio broadcasts kept citizens informed on current events and government action being taken. If Obama were to take up an educational campaign, he would not be the first president to do so. The Fireside Chats proved to be immensely popular and garnered a great deal of support for FDR’s actions during the Great Depression.
While I do think the Consensus Project idea is a is a decent use of the next two years for Obama, the plan is still disappointing and frustrating. We are essentially settling for second best. The president is supposed to act. He is the executor of the laws. The president can be an important educator certainly, but that comes second to taking political action. And while the president cannot make or change the law, the ability to enforce the law is the ability to make the law work. An effective president would find a way to implement laws like health care reform in such a way that it actually provides for people. There would be no glitchy website or extensive delays. An effective president would also know how to manipulate Congress. Lyndon B. Johnson was extremely good at bending Congress to his will. He was integral in getting the Civil Rights Act 1964 passed, a law more deeply-dividing and ground-breaking than anything Obama has faced. Education is an important tool necessary for taking action, but it needs back-up. FDR’s Fireside Chats were certainly educational, but he was also taking action. The first hundred days of his presidency were the one of the most active times in any presidency ever.
Educating the public is really the job of the unofficial fourth branch of the government: the media. And the media has failed in a lot of ways. Bias is not the problem. Every news source has some bias, and it is possible to get good information from even the most biased media. The problem is getting that information. The news day is often inaccurate and aims more to entertain than to educate. If Obama were to take up the Consensus Project, he would not only be covering for his own failings and Congress’s failings, but the failure of the media as well.
So the media has failed, and Obama simply will never possess the skills of Lyndon Johnson with Congress. He can at least use his skills as a teacher to do some good, so he may as well take up the Consensus Project, and hopefully whoever comes after him is actually presidential material. My support of the idea comes with a great deal of cynicism and apathy, but that is how everything has gone with Obama since hope and change died out. With Obama, we will always be settling for talk, not action.
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