Tuesday, February 10, 2009

He's Three Weeks Old

Barak Obama has been in office for 21 days now, but he's still campaigning. It appears America and world are growing tired of it.

It has been 21 days since inauguration day, and 92 days since Election Day, yet President Obama is still campaigning. On Sunday he spoke in Elkhart, Indiana, and yesterday in Fort Meyers, Florida – two swing states. Meanwhile, he’s launched his “Organizing For America”, which is run by the DNC, which is being used now to push the stimulus package. What’s more, his first national address was delivered in Prime Time. This strategy is strikingly similar to his campaign, which was based on the notion that he offered, as George Will noted back in November, “the skill, tenacity, strategic vision and tactical nimbleness of my campaign is proof that I am presidential timber.”

This tactic, of course, worked, and worked very well. It appears that President Obama is now steering the White House in a similar direction. As Jay Cost wrote in yesterday’s WSJ Opinion page, consider this: John Kerry announced his candidacy on December 1, 2002, and Obama announced his exploratory committee on January 16, 2007. If you add it all up, this represents 47% of the Bush Presidency. RealClearPolitics found that Bush’s average approval rating was 29%. These numbers have to be at least a little related in that during nearly half of Bush’s presidency he had an opponent, and it looks like Obama’s strategists would agree that an opponent brings down approval ratings. His seeming preference to use campaign platforms to push policy pays homage to the lessons learned with the correspondence between low Bush ratings and long Democrat campaigning – so long as he remains on the “trail” it remains difficult for the next Republican candidate to carve out a healthy portion of public attention.

There is risk in this tactic, though. He is now the president, he won, and the American people want results. The American public expects their president to be a strong, resolute individual who portrays power and wisdom. Continuing to campaign for friendly audiences past inauguration does not express strength, resolution, power, and wisdom, but instead shows reliance on a tactic that does not demonstrate strong policy knowledge and experience because its focus, instead of on policy, is on rhetoric, which surely the public grew suspicious of during the Bush administration. Perhaps even more dangerous, it allows public discussion of the policies to widen. As discussion on the details of the package have increased, support for it has decreased. Two weeks ago, 34% of Americans opposed the package. The next week, 39% opposed it. This week, opposition has increased to 43%. Time is not on the president’s side. That he has continued to discuss process, in this case a bipartisan approach, over hard policy has led to a stimulus package that is likely to be a significantly less of what he seeks in spite of strong Democratic majorities in both houses. Had he pushed the legislation through Congress earlier, as he could have done, it would have been what he wanted it to be. Pursuing bipartisan support, as noble as it is, has not been a tool of politicians for exactly the reasons that the president is now experiencing – it usually backfires.

Campaigning for policy is no substitute for formulating good policy. The more he has campaigned, the deeper people have looked into the policy, and they don’t like what they find. Not only has Obama’s efforts led to growing disenchantment with the most pressing domestic issue, the stimulus, but after an inauguration that was supposed to reset the world’s opinion and respect for the United States and usher in renewed international cooperative efforts, reaction to Obama’s presidency has been less than positive. A quick recap:

Iran: Since January 22, Iran has launched a satellite into space and declared it would complete, with Russian-supplied nuclear fuel, its long-delayed nuclear reactor. Just one day after speaking of a “golden opportunity for the United States” in relations with Iran, Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani skipped Vice President Biden’s speech at the Munich Security Conference.

Afghanistan: This is the war Obama wants to focus on, and he promised greater efforts to shore up greater NATO support. Germany has told the US that it will not increase its troop count beyond 4,500, none of whom will be stationed in areas where they would be engaged in combat. France has announced it has no plans of increasing its current involvement, keeping its forces at 3,300. In contrast, Obama may double our troop levels to 60,000. This is anything but greater NATO support.

North Korea: Obama promised a friendlier tone with North Korea, a sharp departure from the hard line the Bush Administration took. In response, Kim Jong Il announced that his country was unilaterally withdrawing from its 1991 nonaggression pact with the South. Additionally, satellites have captured NK moving a Taepodong II missile – a missile with the capabilities to reach our west coast – to a launch pad. Talking to the LA Times, Baek Seung-joo, director of the Korean Institute for Defense Analysis in Seoul, commented that “the missile is pointing at Obama. North Korea thinks that with such gestures they can control US foreign policy.”

Pakistan: With both financial and political sway, the Bush Administration was able to coerce Pakistan into taking their internationally hated yet nationalized hero, father of their nuclear program, scientist A.Q. Khan, off the streets. Sure, he was still able to orchestrate some illicit trafficking of nuclear weapon products, but at least his ability to supply terrorists with WMD was lessened. No more than three weeks into the Obama presidency, the Pakistani government chose to release Khan, no doubt in an effort to send a strong message to Obama that it did not like comments he made during the campaign regarding Pakistan and its role in global terrorism. Obama has released nothing more than a softly muted statement of concern.

Russia: Besides its decision to provide the requisite nuclear fuel for Iran’s nuclear reactor, it has continued its military base-building in Georgia’s breakaway regions as well as pressed its cold war friends in Kyrgyszstan to evict US forces from the essential Afghanistan support-route US base located there.

The Arab World: In his first interview as president, Obama told Al-Arabiya “I have Muslim members of my family.” However, Arab reaction to his presidency has been un-familial. “We welcomed him with almost total enthusiasm until he underwent his first test: Gaza. We also wanted Mr. Obama to realize…the right of people in occupied territory to resist military occupation”, said Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany, delivering the message that Arab support for Obama hinged on Obama’s embracement of Hamas and its tactics.

Obama may still be a popular man on the campaign trail at home, but this is not translating into domestic policy success. He may have made US popular in cities like Toronto and Berlin and Paris, but our unpopularity in these cities never mattered much. Despite his ability to play to the home crowd, he is quickly learning that playing the visitor is a more challenging feat when you are responsible for delivering more than words. He’s only been in office for three weeks, yes, but trouble is, his words are not being respected and action has been slow.

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