I did not vote for Barack Obama, but I did wish him well, even publicly so on the pages of Perspectives in early 2009. As I wrote, I was not so much opposed to Mr. Obama as worried that a strongly Democratic Congress would push their former junior colleague in directions he might not on his own prefer. As such, I’m little surprised but much disappointed in what has happened in less than two years.
Congress has always had difficulty balancing budgets, but in the last two years it has created deficits of unprecedented size. These, if temporary in nature and targeted for long-term private-sector growth or critical infrastructure, are fine. But what this Congress has done is mostly to stimulate government itself, particularly at the federal level, with future baseline spending as a percentage of the economy jumping far above historic levels, turning a few annual deficits into a huge structural debt problem. This unsustainable path leaves a terrible choice: mountains of debt for as far as the eye can see, or mammoth decisions to cut spending and raise taxes far more painful than government ever faced before. While mostly the fault of Congress, if the new president had different spending priorities he chose not to expend political capital to strongly change the outcome. That’s disappointing. On foreign policy, I’m not so unhappy. I expected and welcomed some recalibration away from Bush bellicosity. My complaints with President Obama are small here, but my impression is that at times he has over-corrected with too much apology, deference, and naiveté.
As a scholar, my focus is religion in American public life, and I had hoped that an Obama campaign characterized by remarkable sensitivity to America’s vibrant but diverse religious landscape would carry over to respectful engagement in office. I’m disappointed by what I see as a limp and paternalistic partnership with faith-based and community groups and too much deference to more secularist congressional sentiment. Unlike some in my party, however, I’m little concerned about the president’s personal faith. On the contrary, I’m quite pleased. He apparently worships quietly but regularly at Camp David and has other regular devotional times. Quietly but apparently religious, lived in a way with little political benefit. Good for him.
There have been other positives. President Obama is a thoughtful and intelligent person and I mostly appreciate “no-drama Obama.” He can appear as aloof and distant as an academic at times, which probably hurts him in public opinion. But it is clearly his genuine self, and who is this professor to complain about that. If one can set aside their objectionable elements, his major legislative accomplishments of economic stimulus, health-care reform, and financial re-regulation laws are impressive to those who measure success by new federal laws.
My admittedly mixed assessment is preliminary, too. There’s a reason presidential terms are four years; it’s not fair to fully judge a president less than half way into a four-year term. And in this election year I’ve based little of my own political work, and none of my votes, on my estimation of President Obama. I’ve focused on what I think is a fairer target–the too-large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
And here my perspective seems more consonant with the polls. Voters are angry at Washington for misinterpreting the message of 2008–they wanted bipartisan action on the economic crisis. They got action–but on health care, too, and none of it was bipartisan. If anything, partisanship and irresponsibility have gotten worse, fed by a constant and increasingly polarized media. While President Obama could have tried earlier, longer, and harder to be bipartisan, blame goes all around.
The intellectually ideal outcome might be huge election-day losses in both parties–a curse on both parties. But votes are very blunt instruments, and it’s the Democrats’ misfortune to hold the national political power. Rightly or not, voters use off-year elections to send a message to the party in power. A major shift in power toward Republicans will be seen, rightly or wrongly, as a major rebuke to President Obama. If voters hand the House of Representatives to Republicans and narrow the Democratic majority in the Senate to a small margin, as is likely at this writing, Washington will again have a divided government and the message will be to move toward the middle.
Divided government is not all bad; historically it has often been highly productive and good for the nation. The last six years of both the Clinton and Reagan administrations are the most recent examples of fairly good economic times and reasonably well-functioning government under such conditions.
My hope is that November 3 begins a new time of similar substantive accomplishment. Soon after election day 2010 a presidential deficit-reduction commission will report. We can hope that its recommendations will generate constructive responses. May politicians compete, however, briefly, over which party can more responsibly address the need to correct our long-term imbalance between government spending and revenue. If left unchanged, the trends in spending and taxes will burden our children and threaten our national security as we become increasingly dependent upon investors in other nations to finance our profligacy. We are literally mortgaging a share of our national sovereignty to them. If the elections are a two-party “wake up call,” divided government provides the best environment for corrective action. I choose to hope, if not completely expect, a new season of substance for Washington, D.C.