Barack Obama: Hope, change, and contradiction

Barack Obama is proving to be one of the most puzzling presidents. He bravely took out Osama bin Laden but hasn’t had the courage to tackle the deficit. And now he's picked a fight with Catholics – the majority of whom voted for him in 2008.

Susan Walsh/AP Photo
President Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Feb. 7, during the White House Science Fair.

Barack Obama is proving to be one of the most puzzling and enigmatic presidents to evaluate.

He campaigned for the presidency with soaring oratory promising change and hope. But by many accounts his first term has been one of stagnation, leaving many voters who are enduring hard times in despair. It remains to be seen how an early uptick in the economy this year will improve his reelection prospects.

Mr. Obama campaigned against the politics of the old guard but has turned out to be very political, branding an admittedly inept Congress as the sole impediment to his ability to gain presidential traction.

At a few public roasts he has had some funny one-liners about Washington reporters and politicians, and even displayed a pretty good crooning voice. 

But he has not shown the same kind of chumminess with Washington insiders as Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, or Clinton did with such success. Indeed, congressional leaders complain that months go by without a phone call from the White House.

But it is some of Obama’s decisionmaking that is most perplexing.

Probably the most dramatic and epochmaking decision of his presidency so far was the call to neutralize Osama bin Laden. In making the call, the president must have known there would be a high probability of Mr. bin Laden being killed, rather than captured. 

It was a decision taken with the knowledge that if the mission failed it would rank with the ignominy attending Jimmy Carter’s abortive bid to rescue American diplomatic hostages from Iran. Obama faced a vote against it from his own vice president and doubt among some members of his inner circle. His order to go ahead was forceful and courageous.

Yet on the domestic front probably one of his worst decisions was to ignore the recommendations of his own Simpson-Bowles deficit commission. That body made dramatic recommendations to resolve some of the nation’s most pervasive economic problems. Their implementation would have involved persuasive explanation for the American people and tough talk with elected politicians.

But had he fully followed the commission’s recommendations the president would have set the nation on course to tackle the two most serious challenges it continues to face: an unwieldy income tax system and a federal government budget out of control and reason.

This would have meant tough sledding for Obama. But he would have been far better off today than he is, facing a questionable popularity rating and a less-than-certain prospect of reelection.

I believe he had the capacity at that time to start making the government smaller and the tax system more equitable. I believe he could have sold that program to Americans who daily and weekly have to trim their own spending to equal their incomes.

The other extraordinary decision of this president has been the recent one to engage in political warfare with the Roman Catholic church. Does he not know that Americans do not like government messing with their religious beliefs and practices?

Yet his administration decided that under “Obamacare,” Catholic entities’ health-insurance coverage for employees should foot the bill for birth control and abortion procedures that run counter to the church’s beliefs. The church’s hierarchy is responding with astonishment and anger.

There is a substantial Catholic vote in the United States, and in 2008 the majority of Catholics supported Obama. Unless the administration’s edict is rescinded, or the courts deem it an abridgement of the First Amendment, as some have suggested, the president may not be able to count on that majority again.

Small wonder that historians whose job it is to chronicle the progress and performance of this president are presently bemused.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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