What Cool, Suave Barack Could Learn From ‘Give ’Em Hell’ Harry

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published November 11, 2009, issue of November 20, 2009.
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It has lately become fashionable to speak of Barack Obama with — well, with regret. Such great hopes and expectations; so little so far.

I write here not of the birthers and the tea partiers with their loathsome signs, not of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and the others who trade in playing to people’s ignorance and people’s fears, whose verbal hooliganism is so disgraceful. I write instead of those who were among Obama’s most enthusiastic admirers and who now scratch their heads: What happened?

Yes, the president’s plate is too full to comprehend, and on many of the most challenging issues the results — for that matter, even the directions — of his efforts remain to be seen: jobs; Afghanistan; reform of the financial system (so far a gathering disappointment); jobs, again; Israel/Palestine; health care reform. (The House vote on health care reform the other day leaves the Senate, and then, if the Senate puts forward legislation, a conference rewrite to reconcile the House and Senate versions, and finally votes in both chambers on the same bill. None of these remaining three stages will be easy; none can be taken for granted.) Oh yes, ongoing: Iraq, Guantanamo, Pakistan, Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell, Iran. And jobs, still, with 17.5% — nearly one of every five people — out of work. (The 10.2% figure that was announced some days ago did not include people who’ve given up, stopped looking for work.)

Much, but not all, of what the president must deal with is part of the Bush legacy. So one ought not be too quick to judge, much less to conclude that nothing’s changed and nothing will.

There’s also this, too often overlooked: On a wide variety of second-tier issues, much has already been accomplished. Head Start and Early Head Start funding has been increased by $2.3 billion; COBRA, the interim health insurance program that was far too pricey to be meaningful to newly laid-off workers, is now heavily subsidized; a vast expansion of CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a major blow against workplace discrimination; serious investment in research on batteries that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels; a reversal of many of the derelictions of the previous administration with regard to the environment. The list goes on and on, and includes major initiatives in virtually every function of government.

So it is not that the president has been indolent. Nor is it that so much is still pending. No, it is instead a sense that something’s missing. And what’s missing, it seems to me, is a touch of Harry Truman. Barack Obama may be too cool, too suave. Ever since his election, he has held out an olive branch to the Republicans in Congress. The olive branch is plainly an embedded part of his persona. But the Republicans have spurned the olive branch, have scoffed at it. The president is entirely entitled to be angry. Perhaps he really is angry. But he is always, always, always measured. By now, “Give ’Em Hell” Harry, as Truman was called, would have been furious — and would have shown it.

It’s not just the congressional Republicans who have been spared. During the course of the health care debate, there’s been occasional passing criticism of health insurance company executives, who have been about as grateful for the president’s courtesy as my neighborhood pigeons are to my windshield.

True, there may be political reasons for the president’s show of even temper: Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat whose vote is one of the 60 needed in the Senate to move health care reform, is a former health insurance industry executive. Senator Joe Lieberman, another key vote, is from Connecticut, and Hartford is America’s insurance capital.

So perhaps the president’s restraint is purposeful. But for all that he has described health care reform as his major undertaking, the president has been remarkably passive in the trenches. In particular, he failed adequately to display the righteous indignation that last summer’s abominable town halls warranted. So now we (and he) must anticipate either a Senate that cannot bring forward a bill or a Senate bill so neutered as to be a mockery of reform.

And what of the Wall Street titans? No anger at those who brought on the financial catastrophe? Hard, I suppose, to get angry when you’re leaning on Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers for advice. Just when the financial system cries out for serious regulation, its key managers have a track record of cutting backroom deals that benefit precisely those who must be tamed. We have yet to see where the president himself comes down on regulation, but the portents are troubling.

The commander in chief is not a drill sergeant. He does not need to bark. But neither can he allow himself to be perceived as incapable of barking — and even, now and then, biting. “Give ’Em Hell” Barack, would be wildly off-key. But how about “Here I Stand and Fight” Barack?

And jobs, too.


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