Change We Want to Believe In (But You Didn’t Give It to Us): The Road Ahead of President Obama

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

November 3, 2010

Yesterday was not a good day for President Obama. His party lost the House of Representatives by a significant margin and will have a razor-thin majority in the Senate.

In a sense, Mr. Obama’s historic success in 2008 led to last night’s defeat. As candidate, Mr. Obama had promised a lot and people believed in him. He had pledged to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. He has failed to do so. He said he would fix the economy. He has failed to do so. He had promised “change.” He has failed to deliver most of it.

President Obama hasn’t failed on every count, of course. His adroit management of healthcare reform ultimately forced Congress to address one of America’s most pressing problems. The $800 billion stimulus injected much-needed cash into the economy and ended the recession. Through Wall Street reform, the chances of financial abuse leading to another recession are now more miniscule. And the Obama administration’s decision to help General Motors and Chrysler, though quite controversial in 2009, probably revived the auto industry and helped nearly 1 million people to keep their jobs. (Even The Economist, which had opposed the $86 billion bailout, gives credit to Mr. Obama for saving America’s auto industry.)

Furthermore, outside the U.S., people have welcomed Mr. Obama’s presidency with a sigh of relief after the nightmarish years of George W. Bush (although many in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Pakistan probably have other ideas).

But it all goes back to the American maxim, “it’s the economy, stupid!”

If Mr. Obama wants to keep his job in two years, he has to emphasize his commitment to the free market and point out its shortcoming to the American people only within that framework. His opponents try to stick the nonsensical “socialist” tag on him and they are getting very good at it. The President can put an end to such childish name-calling only if he convinces people in the United States that his objective is to get the federal government involved with the free market to help it function more effectively (case in point: the stimulus and Wall Street reform).

Deeds speak louder than words and Mr. Obama can boost his economic credentials significantly by taking aggressive steps to decrease the federal deficit. A lot of budget balancing will have to come from decreasing military spending, which can be realized only if the United States reduces its military commitments, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but throughout the world.

Ronald Reagan’s “government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem” adage certainly influenced voters yesterday. But at a time when the world is globalizing and economies are transforming, governments have a lot to do and the U.S. government is not an exception. As such, Mr. Obama has to move more quickly and decisively in some of the signature areas where he had promised “change” in 2008: education reform, improving America’s infrastructure (especially the transportation system), and energy independence.

That the Obama administration has moved so slowly on these important issues is what led to yesterday’s Democratic defeat.

“Change we want to believe in (but you didn’t give it to us)” said American voters to President Obama. Two years ago, his charisma and message of change had struck a positive chord with a lot of Americans and people around the world. Yesterday, we saw the result of great frustrations borne out of great expectations. Not an outright repudiation of President Obama and his agenda.

Republicans as well as Democrats should keep that in mind in the run-up to 2012. 

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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