Thursday, January 21, 2010

Missing the Real Obama

I do not believe, as many Americans do, that Barack Obama has fizzled in his first year as president. But I do believe that he could have done better than what he has, given the support and the goodwill that propelled him to his historic victory in 2008.

Let’s first put the Massachusetts election in context. Republican Scott Brown’s victory over Democrat Martha Coakley for the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat does not signal a seismic shift in the political landscape of America. It simply means that Coakley, who ran the most inept and asinine campaign in recent memory, lost to the better and more knowledgeable candidate. Brown may derail the health care reform bill and tarnish Kennedy’s legacy but that will not imply that the Republican Party has suddenly become resurgent and is poised to sweep away the Democratic agenda. In fact, Brown’s victory might just be the wakeup call Democrats needed to stop their internal squabbles and get their bearing right.

But there is little doubt that the euphoria we experienced in the wake of Obama’s election as the first African-American president in U.S. history is rapidly vanishing. There are two main reasons for this: The President’s continuation of his predecessor’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his inability to turn the economy around.

We have just reached a dubious milestone: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have topped $1 trillion in taxpayers’ money since 2001, and the President is expected to request another $33 billion to fund more troops in 2010.

To put this in context: 20% of all Americans are either jobless, underemployed or simply have given up looking for work. One out of every eight U.S. mortgages is in default or foreclosure, one out of every four homeowners is burdened with underwater mortgages, and one out of every eight Americans is on food stamps. Hunger and homelessness are on the rise and relief is nowhere in sight.

The stimulus package has not removed or reduced the stress on homeowners and job seekers. The economic “wizard” in Obama’s cabinet continue to spin the fantasy that the recession, at least in their formula-rich spreadsheets, is over. Meanwhile, at least six Americans are responding to each job opening, even if they are over-qualified for it.

Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones for Schools, has built schools in the remotest areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In his many meetings with hardened Afghan warriors, Mortenson came away with one simple message: education is the best antidote to the Taliban. As journalist Trudy Rubin has reported, the title for Stones Into Schools came from a hardened former mujahedeen commander in the remote Badakshan province of Afghanistan who talked about how much his country needed rebuilding. He told Mortenson that there has been far too much dying in these hills. “Now we must turn these stones into schools.” Even warriors want peace, says Mortenson, a lesson he learned by sitting down repeatedly with shuras (representative gatherings) of elders. He says one of the biggest American problems after the 2001 invasion was the lack of such attention paid to what Afghans themselves wanted. We should have consulted with shuras, and listened to, and respected, elders, according to Mortenson.

Most Americans desperately want President Obama to succeed. One rising concern is that Obama has lost touch with his dedicated and passionate supporters. He has to renew his connection with the grassroots. Many Americans are beginning to view his presidency as imperial and catering to the wealthy. This perception has to change.

A constant in the calculus of American politics is that the presidency changes the President. Some it elevates, others, it drags down. Here’s hoping that, in spite of recent setbacks and falling poll numbers, Barak Obama will quickly find his stride and decisively place himself in the first group.

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