David Gergen | Bio
CNN Senior Political Analyst
Across America and much of the world, opinion of Barack Obama as president continues at levels rarely seen in recent decades. Sure, there has been sniping from the right and a little slippage in the polls, but mainstream opinion – both in the polls and the press – has generally been lavish in praise.
That is why it has been jarring to read two of the most influential and mainstream newspapers in the world over the past few days, both of them harshly critical.
In editorials, columns and news stories on Saturday and again this morning, the Financial Times castigates the President for passive leadership. Among the headlines: “President Obama needs to lead”; “Obama is choosing to be weak”; “Cap-and-trade mess”; and “Punch-drunk Obama needs middle way on Tehran”. Meanwhile, the Economist spoke out in its new issue with a full-page column entitled, “The senator-in-chief: Barack Obama is too deferential to his former colleagues on Capitol Hill”.
The essence of their argument about his domestic leadership is that the President has assigned out to Congress primary responsibility for writing major legislative bills and then has stood by passively as the bills have been so watered down or become so flawed that they fall far short of what is needed.
While celebrating that the House has just passed the first bill in its history that would put mandatory caps on carbon dioxide, for example, Europeans and others overseas worry that the U.S. is once again moving too timidly on greenhouse gases. Once-in-a-lifetime chances for reform are being squandered, in their view. Even liberal columnist E.J. Dionne echoes some of these concerns today in the Washington Post. While he prefers Obama’s approach to the Clintons’ on health care, he argues that Obama should now intervene more assertively as Congress wrestles with the reforms.
What should we make of these criticisms and questions from sources who have typically been friendly toward this President and the U.S.?
Two defenses of President Obama seem in order:
First, we should recognize that the politics of change are extraordinarily hard so that some degree of compromise is essential to get major reforms passed these days. The energy-climate bill was supposed to pass the House with ease but in the event, won by only seven votes. And it would have gone down to defeat had not Congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey made some concessions to “Brown Democrats” from coal-reliant states. As it is, the bill now faces a long, tough, uphill fight in the Senate.
Second, President Obama is bringing an unusual leadership style to the Oval Office – leaving much more latitude to Congress than his predecessors – but at least he is breaking through the paralysis that has gripped Washington in recent years. The stimulus package, health care for more children, the energy-climate bill, the prospect of some form of health reform – all of this might have been impossible without Obama. It is worth remembering that when the Clintons tried a much more ambitious reform of health care in the 1990s, the bill never even made it out of committee in a Democratic Congress.
So, let us give the credit to President Obama that he richly deserves.
Yet, these articles appearing in the international press deserve consideration, too. The truth is that as historic as the energy-climate bill is, it does not adequately address the rapidly escalating threat of global warming. Alarm bells are now going off among scientists studying climate change as they see signs it is escalating much more rapidly than expected.
If you want to read a scary piece about where we may be heading, check out the profile of scientist Jim Hansen in the current issue of The New Yorker. For more than a quarter century, Hansen has had an excellent track record in his predictions – and he is now so worried that he thinks the energy-climate bill that just passed the House is useless. Scrap it and start over, he urges. Those who know a lot about health care worry that in a parallel fashion, Congress may pass a reform bill so flawed that it will be illusory as well.
What all this suggests is that the White House has been right to press for reform but it is equally important to get the reform right. The country has not had a full, vigorous debate on these big reforms like climate and health care. That is partly because the press, for a variety of reasons, has not given them the attention they deserve. But it is also because the White House, trying to pursue so many issues simultaneously, has not been to focus on any one of them very long. And let’s face it: the President himself has not tried to fight the Congress on key questions. If anything, he and his team are eager not to draw lines in the sand.
It is too early to judge whether the President’s leadership style will ultimately prove to be a major breakthrough for the country or whether it will bring changes that disappoint. One continues to have great hope for the President. But it is not too early to have a more vigorous debate about where these reforms are taking us. And for that, we should also welcome this questioning from our friends.