Over Thanksgiving my family (all Barack Obama voters in the general) were talking about what we'd like to see him do as president. One of my biggest concerns about Obama has always been that he would compromise too much in the name of bipartisanship and not seize the opportunity to get groundbreaking legislation through Congress. I've also worried that he would water down good policies that threaten to significantly bring down his approval rating.
From my perspective, Bill Clinton's presidency was not very successful for a lot of reasons. Some of them were his fault: he put the wrong people in charge of certain jobs, and he picked the wrong battles and listened too much to Wall Street advisers when it came to policy.
Some things were not Clinton's fault: the Democrats who ran Congress in 1993 and 1994 were not always interested in working with him, and the leaders of the Republican-controlled Congress were more interested in destroying his presidency than anything else.
After getting burned in the 1994 elections, Clinton hired Dick Morris as a political adviser and moved to the right in order to get re-elected. He served a full two terms, but he didn't leave a mark on this country. His greatest achievement, balancing the budget, was undone quickly by his successor. Many smaller successes on environmental and social policies were also reversed by George Bush's administration.
Clinton approved a bunch of good presidential directives, especially on the environment, during his last 60 days in office. Doing them years earlier would not only have been good policy, it also would have prevented Ralph Nader from gaining so much traction in 2000.
Clinton left some very big problems unaddressed, like global warming and our reliance on foreign oil, because the obvious solutions to these problems would have been unpopular.
Compare Clinton's legacy to that of Lyndon Johnson. Although Johnson made terrible mistakes in Vietnam (continuing and compounding mistakes made by John F. Kennedy), he enacted a domestic agenda that changed this country forever. Some of Johnson's achievements were popular (Medicare), while others cost the Democrats politically in many states (the Civil Rights Act). But Johnson did not shy away from big change on civil rights because of the political cost.
I understand that no president will ever do everything I'd like to see done. I'd be satisfied if Obama enacted a groundbreaking, lasting improvement in one or two big areas, like health care or global warming. The right policies often have powerful enemies. I would rather see Obama get good laws passed to address a couple of big problems, even if doing so costs him the 2012 election.
My fear is that in Obama will end up like Bill Clinton--a two-term president who didn't achieve anything that will continue to affect Americans' lives four or five decades down the road.
If Obama only goes to the mat to accomplish one or two big things, what should they be? Keeping his promise to end the war in Iraq? Getting universal health care through Congress? Taking real steps to address climate change? Enacting a huge public-works program to deal with unemployment? Building high-speed rail connecting major American cities?
Would you be satisfied with progress in one or two areas, even if it meant that Obama was not re-elected in 2012?
Yes, I understand that taking some step toward solving one or more of these problems would be popular, but real progress might require some provisions that are unpopular. That's what I'm talking about--policies that go against powerful interests and do more than convey the appearance of solving a problem.