For the past week we have memorialized a presidency lost. During NBC’s tick-tock march through those terrible Friday hours 50 years ago one historian said John Fitzgerald Kennedy “was learning to be a great President.” He was very smart, and he understood history, the man said. Who knows what might have happened had he lived long enough to complete that task.
I do not mean to take anything away from the man who was so brutally murdered 50 years ago, but what that historian said brought to mind our current President and how we may have lost almost as much in potential and promise through the sabotage of one presidency as we did with the assassination that foreshortened another.
Five years ago we elected a man almost as young, certainly as intelligent, and for many as charismatic as JFK. Another with a young and beautiful family; a wife who, while very different in style and substance from Jackie Kennedy, nonetheless sought to bring grace, history, and good works to the White House. But while we embraced the Kennedys and their Camelot with its new emphasis on culture, history, and style, the Obamas were immediately confronted with hateful harping and criticism, unspeakably ugly cartoons, and an attempt to twist and vilify every pronouncement and endeavor of the President and his wife.
While Kennedy had nearly three years to “learn how to be a great president” Barack Obama was not given a single day. Leading Republicans were scheming to undo him even as he danced with his wife on inauguration night and shock jocks were praying he would fail. We wonder what the world might be like had Kennedy lived out his presidency. I wonder where we might be today if our current president had really been allowed to have one.
The stimulus his advisors really wanted as well as his jobs and infrastructure bill might have ended the recession with a bang rather than a weak and prolonged recovery. The loss of Van Jones alone, through the lies and accusation of Glenn Beck (and yes the President’s own fear of standing up to the evil little man), ended any chance of tying the recovery to small bore green job creation.
Obama has been dogged by his campaign promise to close Guantanamo. He tried, but not only did Congress thwart his inaugural week attempt to fulfill that promise, refusing to allow the transfer of prisons or fund the closing, but they now tag him for the financial costs and damage to Americas reputation because he “didn’t keep his promise.”
The Obama Presidency has operated with one administrative hand tied behind its back. Agency directorships and sub-secretary positions were not confirmed or were held up until the President’s first picks gave up and withdrew. To date 27 executive department nominees have faced filibusters. A number of nominees, tired of waiting for their up or down vote, simply withdrew their names and walked away. Others were so hammered in advance the President never submitted their names. This included Elizabeth Warren who Republicans made clear could never head her brainchild the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Not that Richard Cordray, who was finally confirmed after a two year battle that ended only this summer, isn’t doing an excellent job, but the loss of time, the expense of fighting court battles over his recess appointment, and questions over the legality of agency actions under his unconfirmed leadership were unnecessary distractions as American families were struggling to recover from massive financial fraud and the consumer finance system was under renovation. Congress simultaneously blocked three appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rendering that entity virtually inoperable for several years.
Of those 27 obstructed appointments, eleven have occurred since the supposed rapprochement between Senate leaders Reid and McConnell which finally permitted confirmation of Cordray and the three NLRB members. One of the most recent is the nomination of Mel Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Watt is the second name Obama has submitted to replace acting FHFA director and Bush holdover Edward J. DeMarco.
As a reporter I have covered FHFA since it was formed in 2009 and can tell you that had Obama’s first nominee, North Carolina Banking Commissioner Joseph Smith been confirmed the foreclosure crisis might have taken an entirely different path. DeMarco has protected loan servicers, toadied to investors, and fought the administration on much of what they hoped to accomplish. Now, as Watt waits helplessly in the wings, DeMarco is unilaterally making decisions and pushing Congress in directions that will affect the future of homeownership in this country. It isn’t going to end well and is just one more example of how this presidency has been undermined.
Finally, what might the President’s signature program look like if Republicans had pitched in to help it succeed rather than trying to block the ACA at every turn? How much more effective might the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act be if hearing after hearing in the House had not pressured regulators to water down protections authorized by the bill?
These are just the headwinds that make headlines. It is impossible to measure how much the constant obstruction, misrepresentations, and Darrell Issa-driven witch hunts have bled away the President’s energy and will to innovate or even fight. Perhaps it is my imagination that we don’t see the First Lady out there dancing with children or pushing her health agendas as much as we once did but who could blame her if, sick of the condemnation and caricatures she has just said the hell with it. I wonder how often Obama himself grieves over what might have been if character assassination and ideology hadn’t ended his Camelot in days rather than years.
When I moved from Boston to Georgia ten years ago they told me about grits and pork rinds, warned me about the bugs, and assured me there would be a lot less snow. They did not tell me that belonging to a church is required by statute and that I would be the only liberal between Atlanta and the Canary Islands.
There are, however, Yellow Dogs. These are Southerners who would vote for a Golden Retriever if it were running as a Democrat. That these people would be called Republicans if they lived in New England does not make me one bit less grateful that they exist.