Rick Holmes: Obama comes down to earth

Rick Holmes

"So how's that 'hope and change' working out for you?"

I've been hearing that a lot lately. It's said - more often, typed - with a sneer, like so many lines we hear these days when the subject turns to politics.

It carries the annoying implication that some big question has been settled. "Everyone knows Obama's a failure," it says. "Aren't you sorry you got excited last year? Aren't you sorry you voted for the guy?"

My first inclination is to respond in kind, and there are plenty of sneers that can be hurled at the other side. My second is to answer the question.

"Actually, it's working out OK," I say. "Could be better, but it's still early."

For most of those who voted for Obama, the balloon hasn't popped, but there's no denying that it is flying a lot lower than that heady night when the new first family took to the stage in Grant Park. Obama's return to earth may be a surprise and a disappointment to those new to politics, but not to me.

Campaigns are poetry; governing is prose. Translating a lofty campaign promise into legislation is slow, unglamorous work. Obama isn't floating along on lofty rhetoric these days; he's grounded in the details of running the federal government.

Contrary to the opponents, who inflate "Obama-mania" to better shoot him down, Obama didn't promise to usher in a new world in a single day, a single year or a single term - and he hasn't.

What about the things he did promise? Since Inauguration Day, PolitiFact.com has been tracking Obama's performance on more than 500 promises of all sizes. Their score to date: 52 promises kept, 14 compromised, 7 broken, 15 stalled, 114 in the works and 292 not yet rated. Sounds about right, with three years and three months to go.

Promises kept include opening up presidential records, banning executive branch employees from accepting gifts from lobbyists, rebuilding schools in New Orleans, undoing the Supreme Court ruling that limited employees' rights to sue for pay discrimination and ordering the Pentagon to end the war in Iraq.

Promises broken include recognizing the Armenian genocide, putting health reform negotiations on C-Span, allowing five days for public comment before signing bills and providing a $3,000 job-creation tax credit.

The list of incomplete promises is long, and each comes with a detailed explanation. The promises listed as compromised or stalled mostly come down to Congress. It's an old Washington story. Can't govern with Congress, can't govern without it.

You can say Obama has failed to deliver on the promise of bipartisanship, but that puts the blame on the wrong end of Pennsylvania Avenue. For lots of reasons, Republicans and Democrats in the House have been at each other's throats since at least 1994. Special interests have had their grip on Congress members a lot longer than that - there are said to be six health industry lobbyists for every member of Congress - and they aren't there to defer to any president, however popular.

I'm not pleased that progress has been slow on some key Obama initiatives, or that changes that sound big going in get watered down in the legislative process - but I'm not surprised. The sneers of the Obama opponents aside, he didn't run for dictator. He can't snap his fingers and make big change happen.

That said, the record so far shows Obama has yet to suffer a major legislative defeat. The stimulus bill alone includes enough major initiatives - education, alternative energy, high-speed rail, health information technology, expanded broadband - to match most presidents' first term achievements. Congress passed Obama's budget, which includes major reforms in Pentagon spending. His supreme court nominee was easily confirmed, as were all the other nominees that faced a confirmation vote.

The economy is still a mess, but that's not terribly surprising. In January, experts were saying the recession would end in the fourth quarter; growth actually started in the second quarter. They said unemployment would hit double digits and stay there for awhile, a prediction that is on the money.

Yes, it's painful, and Obama will have to come up with some new jobs-creation initiatives. But those who criticize him for throwing a lifeline to the auto industry, or for shoring up state and local budgets, or for extending unemployment compensation for those out of work, don't seem to have solutions of their own to offer.

I have my own criticisms of the Obama administration so far. His economic team - notably Tim Geithner and Larry Summers - has given too much to Wall Street and asked too little in return. The big banks won't lend the bailout money we gave them, and the smaller banks, which do most of the lending to small business and individuals, are folding left and right.

I'm not pleased that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is still official policy. I think sending more troops to Afghanistan is a losing proposition. I don't like that Obama is still using signing statements, that he favors keeping in place the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps and "extraordinary rendition."

What we've learned in these last 10 months is that Obama is an incrementalist, a moderate, a pragmatist. He'd rather take half a loaf than risk losing it all. Faced with conflicting priorities, he'll look for a middle path. He thinks before he acts.

So Obama released the memos detailing torture of detainees at Gitmo, but not the pictures. He approved expanded family visits to Cuba and lifted restrictions on private money transfers, but left the embargo in place. He invited gay families to the White House Easter Egg Roll, and last week rescinded Reagan's ban on letting people with AIDS into the country, but he has yet to take the first step toward repealing the Defense of Marriage Act.

To discouraged liberals, these moves are thin gruel. To conservatives, they are proof of Obama's radical agenda. To me, they are half-steps in the right direction. Put enough of them together and we may actually get somewhere.

"The president is a person of nuance," Anna Quindlen wrote in Newsweek. "But on both ends of the political number line, nuance is seen as wishy-washy. There's no nuance in partisan attacks, soundbites, slogans, which is why Barack Obama didn't run with the lines "Some change you might like if you're willing to settle" or "Yes, we can, but it will take a while."

I didn't see Tuesday's off-year election as much of a referendum on Obama and, according to exit polls, neither did the voters. More telling was a CNN poll, which found that a year after his election, 54 percent of Americans approve of the job Obama is doing - nearly identical to the 53 percent who voted for him in 2008.

I won't predict what happens a year from now, when the Congressional elections will indeed be a referendum on the president. If he can get health reform passed, unemployment starts coming down and things are stable in Iraq and Afghanistan, he may do OK. If not, history shows presidents almost always lose Congressional seats in mid-term elections.

Because of the economic crisis, Obama's election has often been compared to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt. So it's worth noting that Social Security, FDR's landmark entitlement bill, wasn't signed until more than two years into his term, a timeline Obama is likely to beat with health care reform. And just as health care reform is turning out to be more limited than Obama's backers hoped, so was Social Security, which originally covered just half of America's workers.

By the time the 1934 mid-term election came around, the unemployment rate stood at nearly 22 percent. But while Roosevelt was detested and vilified by a loud minority, just as Obama is now, the American people - most of them, at least - figured he was doing everything he could to get the country back on its feet. Democrats picked up another nine seats in the Senate and nine in the House, and two years later, FDR was re-elected in a historic landslide.

So don't let the sneers get to you, Obama backers. There's still a need for change, and still reasons for hope.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com.