Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt offers a striking theory on how President Obama chose his agenda for his first two years, and why so many of his allies are so disappointed in the results. Basically, there was just too much basic repair work to be done, given the mess he inherited from the previous administration, and that left too little time and political capital to do all the things he wanted to do. It’s a must-read, but here’s the guts of it:
An ambitious set of goals motivated Obama’s candidacy, and early in his presidency the rap was that he was taking on too many. But the legacy of wars abroad and the Great Recession at home threatened his ability to accomplish any of them. Simply managing that bleak inheritance, he realized, might consume his entire term. To avoid that trap, Obama had to govern with discipline. First, he would have to turn potential negatives into successes. At home, that meant not only engineering a stimulus program to end the recession but also designing financial reform to prevent a recurrence. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it meant charting a path to not just to withdrawal but stable outcomes. Since both fronts would take enormous energy and political capital, Obama could not afford to squander whatever remained across an array of worthy electives. So over time he subordinated everything to just two: health-insurance reform and blocking Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Anything else, no matter how popular or deserving, had to give way if it interfered with those.
As Hiatt tells it, that led to a host of controversial decisions like stalling on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, letting labor-law reform die, making nice to Russia and China while neglecting close friends in Europe and a whole lot more.
It’s like what our good friend Rabbi Tarfon used to say: “The day is short, the work is vast and the workers are slow, but the reward is great. And besides, the landlord is coming for the rent.” (Mishnah Avot II:20). And bear this mind: “He also used to say” — this one is a shout-out to Obama’s unhappy allies — “You’re not obliged to finish the job, but neither are you free to walk away.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).