January 26, 2010 8:16 pm

Obama needs to perform a U-turn

This has been a ghastly 12 months for President Barack Obama. As he prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address, none of the fair promises of his November 2008 victory has been fulfilled. The question now being asked, very properly, is whether he can recover in the next nine months, rescuing his Democratic party from catastrophic Senate and House losses in the mid-term elections. Even more importantly, will it be possible for him to proceed to win a second term for himself in 2012? The tasks are Herculean, though they might not have proved daunting for either of Mr Obama’s most distinguished 20th-century Democratic presidential predecessors, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

Mr Obama could benefit from studying these earlier Democratic party administrations, so much more deft, feisty and innovative than his own. The proposition, commonly heard, that America’s political and economic problems are infinitely more serious today betrays a woeful ignorance of the tumultuous 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, those able to recall the days when Roosevelt and Truman suffered obloquy and disdain comparable to and sometimes greater than what is now being meted out to Mr Obama know that neither ever capitulated to harsh criticism. It will soon be clear whether Mr Obama has the political skill, the fleetness of foot and the self-confidence to learn from his accomplished predecessors.

Does Mr Obama, in short, have the intelligence and the will to change course now, to show he is neither overwhelmed nor disheartened by his all-too-obvious failures and is in fact able to learn and profit from them? While there is no need for him to acknowledge the tactical and strategic errors he has made since entering the Oval Office – it has never been a presidential habit to admit fallibility – he must realise that his willingness to change course, doing so dramatically and expeditiously, will determine whether he survives as an effective leader.

Mr Obama desperately needs to make a U-turn, and to do so gracefully, deliberately and without rancour. He would do well to begin by seeing the congressional Republicans for what they are, commonplace politicians scarcely redolent of those who graced the GOP opposition in the days of Roosevelt and Truman. One does not need to make heroes of men such as Nelson Rockefeller and later east coast, midwestern and western Republicans who resembled him to say that today’s predominantly southern contingent evokes no memory of them. Mr Obama must stop seeking photo-opportunities with the likes of former president George W. Bush, remembering what he so recently thought of him and those others who served for eight years in an administration he once knew to be disastrous.

While Roosevelt never thought to recruit for his cabinet individuals who had served President Woodrow Wilson in the previous Democratic party government, Mr Obama made the mistake of filling his administration with Bill Clinton “retreads”. While there is no convenient way now to rid himself of many of that crew, he ought to be constantly searching for a new generation of able men and women, black and white, Hispanic and Asian, to complement them, giving his administration the intellectual and political strength it now so obviously lacks.

If Mr Obama is able to inject some humour into his too turgid discourses, remembering that he occupies an office once graced by the witty and fun-loving Roosevelt, and if he seeks to show something of the sang-froid Truman demonstrated when many in his own party were ready to discard him, he may remind the nation of a fact now forgotten – the Democratic party was once a party of wit and resolve, prepared to be contentious and combative. The grey qualities of Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge had no analogue in the Democratic party of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson; it ought to have none at this critical moment in US history.

Mr Obama is well aware of the difficulties of his task, erasing memories of this last unfortunate year and of much that came before. He can do this best by making clear that his political agenda is not intended to take the country back to some mythical past hallowed by memory, but is instead calculated to bring it forward to a time of innovation and change, of greater social justice and international peace. He cannot pretend that he will resolve the grave and continuing problems of unemployment in a year or two; Roosevelt never achieved that either. But Mr Obama can legitimately recall all that a succession of 20th-century Democratic administrations did to lead the country out of economic stagnation, to give it hope and moral strength.

Should the electorate decide not to re-elect Mr Obama in 2012 – a very real possibility – he could retire with dignity, knowing he had done his best to prove that a black man could lead the nation, becoming its principal political educator. That would be a legacy more substantial than any his recent predecessors are able to claim, especially if it comes to be joined to a foreign policy agenda that allows the country to enjoy what it has not known this last decade – peace. Social justice and international order are abstractions that need to be made concrete by a president, intelligent and articulate, who understands that words can never be a substitute for action.

The writer is emeritus professor of history at Brown University and author of The Presidents, recently revised and published by Penguin

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