Friday, January 23, 2009

Failed Presidency?

No, not Bush. I'm looking at all of the ways that President Obama is setting himself up for failure. The list is daunting for any president but more so for one who has already been proclaimed the next Lincoln/FDR/Kennedy/Reagan. Many events are outside of his control but he made them his anyway. Here's my list.

Unreasonable Expectations
As I blogged earlier, the big question on inauguration day was which former A-list president Obama most resembled. This is an almost impossible standard to be judged by. Obama invited such talk during his early campaign when he ran as the candidate of unspecified hope and change and let each voter project exactly what that meant. He continues to add fuel to this fire as he and Secretary of State Clinton talk about their new aggressive diplomacy and how different it is from Bush's. Bush's foreign policy was far more nuanced than he is given credit for and Clinton's new policy sounds like a retread of failed initiatives from the Clinton years.

Relations with the Press
No matter how they start off, all presidents develop a bunker mentality with the press. Because of the requirements of the newscycle, the press needs a constant flow of information. They also repeat questions that the administration doesn't want to hear. Even a president who has a good relationship with the press during the campaign starts seeing them as the enemy once he is in the White House.

Obama's honeymoon with the press might end sooner than most. On a personal level, he hates the loss of his privacy. Last month he evaded the press long enough to take his kids to a waterpark. He has also cut reporters off from asking questions that he considers out of scope. His administration is currently in a dispute with the press pool over photographs. All of this while he is still in a controversy-free honeymoon period. Imagine when a real scandal or crisis happens.

There is also the possibility of a backlash after fawning election coverage. The excuse given inside the industry is that they went overboard for Obama as an act of contrition after giving Bush a pass on the lead-in to Iraq. With new books due out soon that documents their Obama-bias, they may react by being more vigilant than otherwise.

The Economy and the Stimulus
Right now the American people say that they will give Obama time to fix the economy. That attitude will probably change as time passes, especially after his stimulus passes. The Congressional Budget Office says that the stimulus will come too late to help with unemployment. The White House Budget Office argues back that 80% of the stimulus will be spent by the end of next year.

With that much money being thrown around so quickly, there will be a lot of boondoggle projects and wasted funds. This is where a hostile press will hurt. A friendly press will sit on these stories. An adversarial press will run them.

Between his own stimulus and various bail-outs, Bush spent a lot of money - around $1 trillion. Obama is likely to match that this year and may double it. Somehow we will have to pay for that in the near future, likely with stepped-up inflation. It's been 30 years since we had high inflation. No one under 40 is really aware of how it affects every aspect of life. Obama himself might be too young to remember it well and may be treating the threat too lightly.

Iraq and Afghanistan
Iraq is a no-win issue for Obama. Bush left him an apparent victory. If things continue to go well then Bush gets the credit. If they get worse then Obama will be blamed. A failure in Iraq will help Republicans for a generation.

Afghanistan offers more opportunity but Obama has already fenced himself in. Conflict there has been escalating. Obama promised to win in Afghanistan and capture bin Ladin. Given the realities in Pakistan, this may be impossible. At best it will take a long war of attrition, the type of conflict that Iraq became.

Bush won in Iraq through stubbornness. Two years ago even Bush's generals told him that it was a lost cause and that he should cut his losses and leave. Instead he looked for a new strategy and browbeat the generals into accepting it.

Obama is in the wrong party for this. His side includes the anti-war groups like Code Pink and Not In Our Name and activists like Cindy Sheehan. Even the hawks don't seem to have the stomach for a drawn-out conflict. If Obama's surge into Afghanistan doesn't produce quick results then the public will tire of the drip of casualty reports. Currently Afghanistan has the support that it does because so much of the news comes from Iraq. As Iraq winds down and Afghanistan ramps up this will reverse.

Health Care
People expect Obama to provide fast, efficient, free medical care for everyone from now on. Everyone expects it from him. The problem is that once he gets down to specifics, a lot of people are going to attack it. This is what happened with Clinton. Health Care reform looked like a certainty at Clinton's inauguration but never happened.

There is going to be a lot of pressure on Obama to hold off on health care until the economy recovers. It is going to be expensive. His promise that he can give everyone health care by streamlining the system is a pipe dream. If he waits too long he will not have enough political capitol.

There is also the possibility that he passes something and people hate it. The lessons of Canada and the United Kingdom are that health care suffers after the government takes it over.

One of Bush's biggest claims to fame is that he kept us safe from follow-up attacks after 9/11. Obama already made a show of prohibiting the more controversial aspects of the War on Terror. If terrorists strike America then people will blame him for not stopping it. It doesn't matter if his executive order had any affect at all. He will be blamed. Especially if the press has turned against him.

So that's Obama's impossible task. Any one of these could drag down a presidency and he has to get everything right on all of them. If he can manage that then he deserves his place among the A-list presidents. If not then he can always rehabilitate him image by building houses for Habitat for Humanity. It worked for Carter.

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