Barack Obama, One Year Later

Barack Obama, One Year Later

By Hasan Zillur Rahim

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 represent a seismic shift. 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. Waiting for Sarah Palin to self-destruct is a negative strategy and will not work.

But there is no 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; instead, it seems to have further fattened the fat cats of Wall Street and the banking industry, responsible for the economic meltdown in the first place. The so-called economic wizards in Obama’s cabinet continue to spin the fantasy that the recession, at least in their formula-laden spreadsheets, is over. Meanwhile, at least six Americans respond to each job opening, even if it is below their qualification.

President Obama is known for his facility with words. He is among the most eloquent presidents in history. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, he said,  “… we are at war, and I’m responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill, and some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the costs of armed conflict - filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other … I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: ‘Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.’ As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak - nothing passive - nothing naïve - in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King … But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.”

These are stirring words but what did they lead to? More troop deployment in Afghanistan, to kill and be killed.

Now compare these words with those of Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones for Schools. 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 reports,  “The title for Stones Into Schools came from a hardened former mujahedeen commander in the remote Badakshan province of Afghanistan named Sadhar Khan, who talked about how much his country needed rebuilding. Khan told Mortenson that there has been far too much dying in these hills. He spoke of the Afghans who died fighting the Russians and the Taliban (whom most Afghans came to despise by the late 1990s). 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, he says.”

These may not be stirring words but in terms of defining a sane and wise foreign policy, they are far more substantial than anything the President and his advisers have offered so far.

Most Americans desperately want President Obama to succeed. They have much to offer him by way of advice and suggestion. Here are two of mine.

Mr. President, your oratorical skills may have become an albatross for you. Style is winning over substance and promises you made during your campaign are falling by the wayside. We voted for you not only to discontinue George Bush’s policies but to stop wars and bring about meaningful changes in America and the world. Perhaps you can begin by promoting job creation to the top of your list of priorities. Don’t strive for eloquence in your next ten speeches. (You may consider reducing the number of your speechwriters). Be confident in being prosaic. You need to dispel the notion that you are all words and no deeds.

Mr. President, you seem to have lost touch with your diehard and passionate supporters. You must renew your connection to the grassroots. Many Americans are beginning to view your presidency as imperial and catering to the wealthy and special interest groups. You are coming across as much too cerebral, head getting all the attention and the heart nothing. Please try to strike a balance between the two.

The one 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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