Looking Back: Politics in 2009

2009 is almost over, and America has clearly forgotten that HOPE WON AND ALL OUR PROBLEMS ARE OVER!  Okay, so perhaps our expectations were a little high.  But even so, I’d like to ask… what to think about politics in 2009?

Let’s take look at the ideas I raised in the “Looking Forward” post last year.  Keep in mind that these are primarily my take on politics… no attributing my comments to the other CaPC writers, please!

President Obama; Pragmatist or Idealist?

One of my oft-repeated sentences to Obama naysayers was this: The Presidency has a strong moderating effect on whoever fills the office.  Sure enough, despite Democrat control of the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, President Obama has not done anything very extreme as of yet.

On the domestic side, his team has addressed the economic problem with a combination of clarifying stress tests, regulatory reforms, and a stimulus package.  Argue all you want about which of these things had positive or negative value (personally I think the stress tests were the highest value move here by building confidence in the credit markets for a minimal cost), but the fact remains that our economic conditions are well ahead of consensus projections from the beginning of the year.

The other major domestic issue of the year has been health care.  Obama set out to do some big things, but has severely moderated those goals of late (including dropping the public option).  The bill itself is not done, but already it’s looking like another bloated Washington attempt to address an issue with wrongheaded solutions.  My greatest hope for the bill is that it gives us more information about the reforms we ACTUALLY need in the future.  But be that as it may, Obama has shown greater interest in enacting a few solutions than he has in his originally stated goal of universal health care.

Finally, on the foreign front, Obama has again had to back away from stated goals.  Slower than expected reduction of troop levels from Iraq, the non-closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison, and a pseudo-surge in Afghanistan have all shown a willingness to let circumstances dictate policy.  His ridiculous Nobel Prize notwithstanding, he clearly is not afraid to change when need be.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle were frustrated by the Obama team for completely different reasons, but it seems the grandest fears of each side are failing to come to fruition, and that’s a good thing.  So far Obama is showing himself a pragmatist, and the best conservatives can hope for in 2010 is a continuation of that trend.

The Soul of the Republican Party

This debate is clearly not over.  Despite some impressive rhetoric from all quarters, nobody is 100% sure of the direction the party will take.  Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh continue to alienate even as they continue to draw a large audience.  Romney is silent, Jindal is silent, and Pawlenty is attempting to make waves but may as well be silent for all the good it is doing him.  Neither side is yet willing to back down.

So, it looks like we’ll have to wait for 2010 to clarify the Republican direction.  If I were a betting man, though, I think that the Palin-Limbaugh-Beck extremism is marginalizing itself (especially in comparison to the Obama Gravitas).  Further, if Rudy Guiliani runs for and wins a Senate seat, I think that tips the scales in favor of the pragmatists and moderates as party leaders for the next 11 years or so.

What have you done for me…Locally?

It’s hard to find good information on this, but I still think 2009 was the beginning of a large alteration in perspectives on local governance.  More and more I see communities trying to find ways to make their malls and grocery stores homier, their parks cleaner and more interesting, and their local attractions more accessible.

Further, standardized testing from the No Child Left Behind act has highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of local school districts, prompting new discussions on how to improve education locally rather than federally (take a look at this clear example in the city of Detroit).

And if it produces nothing else, 2009 will have developed a host of low-level politicians with experience in emergency management of tight budgets!

Conclusions

On the whole I would say 2009 was defined by four key things… Obama the Pragmatist, incompetent legislative leadership from the Democrats, slow changes in the structure of the economy, and the hunkering-down of local political districts.

It will be interesting to see how these things change and grow in 2009!

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • Joseph

    Nice post. I think you’ve hit most of the key political trends from this year on the head. I would add one or two things to your list of key things this year was defined by, however:

    1) failed bipartisanship – I don’t think this falls under ‘incompetent leadership from democrats’ because the republicans were unwilling to do it, either. The only piece of truly bipartisan legislation I’ve heard about is a committee-level bill that was passed to try and force the NCAA to have a playoff for Division IA football. Failed bipartisanship, which could also be a sub-heading under…

    2) empty promises – What you call ‘the moderating effect of the Presidency’, I call campaign bullsh*t. I believe that 85-90% of Americans are at least partially moderate, i.e. not crazy-conservative or crazy-liberal. The game for both major parties is to be as left-leaning or right-leaning as you can (without losing electability) during the primaries, then dive for the middle in the general election. President Obama and his handlers are smart politicians, and are certainly smart enough to understand that many of the promises candidate Obama made would impossible to deliver, given our current form of government and identity as a society. I’m not saying he’s alone in this. All politicians do it. He’s just the one who got elected doing it last year.

  • David Dunham

    Ben, interesting thoughts. You seemed to have slightly addressed it, but what do you make of the common accusation by Republicans that Obama is moving the country towards socialism?

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Good thoughts Joseph!

    1) Here’s the thing… you can’t expect the Democrats to seek bipartisanship from a disciplined, completely unwilling Republican minority. I wish bipartisanship were an option, but you are right that the Reps. bear the blame for this one. And really, is it all that different than every other administration since Clinton?

    2) You’re not wrong… but the situation isn’t unique. Maybe I’m desensitized, but I don’t get excited anymore about something that’s pretty much SOP for American politics.

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    David,

    Good question. I think the simplest perspective is this; imagine a scale or continuum. On one end is pure liberalism (embodied by, say, Chairman Mao), on the other is pure conservatism (embodied by, say, Hitler). American politics of the last 200 years have been well within certain boundaries toward the center of that scale.

    Any time there is movement in one direction or the other, opponents of the regime in power pretty much always scream that it is a move “toward socialism” or “toward nazism,” or “toward empire” or what have you. During Bush’s presidency, it was generally agreed among extreme liberals that he was forming a militaristic, return-to-the-dark-ages sort of conservative empire. Now that Obama is in power, conservatives are screaming that he is pulling us toward a socialistic, all-your-stuff-is-owned-by-the-state enclave.

    There are certainly larger historical trends going on here in terms of the direction of the country. But those trends are dictated by societal mores that are much larger than any one president. Feel free to disagree with President Obama (there are lots of reasons and issues to do it on!), but I think the charge of him being a secret socialist trying to radically alter the pillars of our way of life is just unfounded rhetoric.


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